"The Eyes of Texas," the official song of the University of Texas at Austin, considered by some as an unofficial state song, was first sung at a minstrel show to benefit the university track team at the Hancock Opera House in Austin on May 12, 1903. William L. Prather, an alumnus of Washington College (Lexington, Virginia) and president of UT from 1899 to 1905, had often in his student days heard Robert E. Lee, then president of Washington College, say to students, "The eyes of the South are upon you." Prather altered the saying for use at the University of Texas.
The best-documented version of the song's origin has Lewis Johnson, director of the band and the person in charge of the show, asking his roommate, John Lang Sinclair, to write the lyrics to a lively song. On the night before the show, Sinclair, recalling Prather's words, wrote lyrics fitted to the melody of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" on a piece of scrap laundry paper. The glee club quartet performed the song repeatedly at the show to great applause, and the band paraded the campus playing and singing the song the next day. Two years later Prather's family requested that the song be sung at his funeral.
Sinclair had revised the words and the chorus to the revised version is the song now in popular use. The song gradually became the students' favorite school song. It was translated into ten languages on order of university president Harry Y. Benedict in 1930. The UT Students' Association copyrighted the piece in 1936. In 1951 the association set up the John Lang Sinclair Eyes of Texas Scholarship Fund. Royalties were placed in the fund, and half went to the association and the other half to scholarships.
When the copyright expired in 1964, the Students' Association, with the assistance of the Ex-Students' Association and Congressman J. J. (Jake) Pickle, tried to renew the copyright, but the request was refused. Even so, "The Eyes of Texas" continued to be recognized as the official song of the University of Texas at Austin and at times was mistakenly identified as the state song.
UT students and administration were surprised in the late 1970s to hear that a man living in Oregon was claiming the ownership of the "Eyes of Texas" and collecting on his version of the composition. A former Fort Worth musician, Wylbert Brown, copyrighted the words in 1928 with the hope that the song would become the official state song during the Texas Centennial in 1936. In 1986 Arthur B. Gurwitz, president of Southern Music Company in San Antonio, set out to honor his son, a UT graduate who had died in 1984. Gurwitz negotiated with Brown, then ninety-one, who agreed to assign the copyright to UT Austin, provided he would continue to draw some royalty until his death. He died in February 1987. On November 14, 1987, in a special salute before a football game, UT Austin honored Arthur Gurwitz for securing the copyright of the song for the school.
In 2003 in honor of the centennial anniversary of the first performance of the song, the University of Texas Board of Regents reaffirmed "The Eyes of Texas" as the university's official song. In March 2012 the University of Texas purchased the publication rights to the song from Southern Music Company. The original text of the song hangs in the Lila B. Etter Alumni Center. Another copy, a silk screen, was taken to the moon in 1969 by university alumnus Alan L. Bean. This prized copy is also at the Alumni Center on campus.