Norman, Okla., USA

Name That Tune!


While writing about Johannes Brahms' "Academic Festival Overture" in a brief guide to academic graduations and costumes the other day, it occurred to me that several songs familiar to many Americans have origins that range from quite humorous to downright bizarre*. As an example, can you name an English drinking song that is familiar to virtually all Americans? Answer: "To Anacreon [an-NAK-ree-ahn] in Heaven." Never heard of that one, you say? Perhaps the author of the lyrics, Francis Scott Key, and his poem set to this tune are more familiar. It's called "The Star Spangled Banner." (!)  There seems to be a tendency among Americans to adopt as their own everything from songs mocking their habits and customs to the enemy's own national anthem. These are often made into solemn hymns and even patriotic icons.


Doubtless those of you who have attended the annual O.U. U. Texas football game in Dallas have heard a song called "The Eyes of Texas." The tune, of course, is just "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad." The lyrics were created by a U. Texas student for U.T.'s equivalent of Sooner Scandals to make fun of an early (1890s) U.T. president's continual references to the fact that students needed to be on their best behavior, since many Texans at the time believed that a college education was a expensive, high-falutin' waste of time. The president's often-repeated slogan? "The eyes of Texas are upon you." The song became an instant hit on campus, and even the president at whose expense the joke was made apparently appreciated it. The song was played by his request some years later, at dirge tempo, at his funeral!

Not a few residents of the Texas Panhandle, many of whom I suspect are originally from Oklahoma, stand when "The Eyes of Texas" is played, apparently believing it to be the Texas State Song. That honor actually belongs to the much less popular "Texas Our Texas," known to few and sung by even fewer.


Those of you who have visited Great Britain may have found it somewhat odd that state ceremonies there often feature that old American favorite, "My Country 'Tis of Thee." A very brief investigation will reveal that the tune was purloined by scruffy American colonists in the late 1700s from what is much better known to Britts as "God Save the Queen," the British national anthem!


The American favorite "Yankee Doodle" was a derisive ditty created by British soldiers during the American Revolution, depicting the rebellious colonists as inept dandies absolutely incapable of winning a war against the most powerful nation on earth (Britain), much less of governing themselves. (I suppose the capability to govern ourselves is still in question, particularly in light of the behavior of our last two Presidents, not to mention the lack of three-digit IQ scores in the current U.S. House of Representatives.  With copious aid from the French, however, we surely did win the American Revolution.) The song "Yankee Doodle" survives as a patriotic song played by every fife and drum corps that assembles for a Fourth of July independence celebration.


There are surely more of these than I have mentioned here. If you have other examples, pass them along, and I'll add them to the list with appropriate credit.  Speaking of appropriate credit, the idea for this article came from a September 2006 conversation with Dr. Tamara Carter at OCCC who is, like the author, a former member of Rice's (in-)famous Marching Owl Band (Da MOB!).


BTW, Wikipedia at and The Texas Handbook Online at have more information on many of the above topics.



*Brahms described his "Academic Festival Overture" as "a very boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs." This may not strike many Americans as odd, since we seldom hear this beautiful Brahms work other than at graduations of elite American universities, if at all. The work and the tune "Gaudeamus Igitur" prominently quoted therein are much more commonly heard at graduations at universities in Europe. I first became aware of the work when, as a member of the ad hoc Convocation Choir, I sang "Gaudeamus Igitur" ("Let Us Therefore Rejoice") at Rice U. in Houston. --CLO




Miscellaneous References



History of Brahms' "Academic Overture"


"The Eyes of Texas," as the Unofficial Texas State Song .


Star Spangled Banner History (click the Anacreon in Heaven link) .


Rice's Marching Owl Band

Rice MOB,  The Half-Time of InfamyRice University