The earliest published lyrics to surface to date are found in Christy's Plantation Melodies. No. 2, a songbook published under the authority of Edwin P. Christy in Philadelphia in 1853. Christy was the founder of the blackface minstrel group known as the Christy's Minstrels. Their shows were a popular form of American entertainment featuring white performers with burnt cork makeup portraying caricatures of Blacks in comic acts, dances, and songs. The plaintive courtship-themed 1853 lyrics of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" fit the minstrel genre by depicting an African-American singer, who refers to himself as a "darkey," longing to return to "a yellow girl," a term used to describe a mulatto, or mixed-race female born of African-American and white progenitors. The songbook does not identify the author or include a musical score to accompany the lyrics:
There’s a yellow girl in Texas
That I'm going down to see;
No other darkies know her,
No darkey, only me;
She cried so when I left her
That it like to broke my heart,
And if I only find her,
We never more will part.
Chorus: She's the sweetest girl of colour
That this darkey ever knew;
Her eyes are bright as diamonds,
And sparkle like the dew.
You may talk about your Dearest Mae,
And sing of Rosa Lee,
But the yellow Rose of Texas
Beats the belles of Tennessee.
Where the Rio Grande is flowing,
And the starry skies are bright,
Oh, she walks along the river
In the quiet summer night;
And she thinks if I remember
When we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again,
And not to leave her so.
Chorus: She's the sweetest girl of colour, &c
Oh, I'm going now to find her,
For my heart is full of woe,
And we'll sing the songs together
That we sang so long ago.
We’ll play the banjo gaily,
And we’ll sing our sorrows o'er,
And the yellow Rose of Texas
Shall be mine forever more.
Chorus: She's the sweetest girl of colour, &c.
"Dearest Mae" and "Rosa Lee," the only named females in the song, are the titles of two songs also appearing in Christy's Minstrels songbooks. These songs were published earlier (1847–48) and are similar in style. Both are sung by a Black man in a courtship setting with lyrics similar to those found in "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Dearest Mae, who was from “old Carolina state,” was described as follows: “Her eyes dey sparkle like de stars, Her lips are red as beet,” and “She cried when boff [both] we parted.” Rosa Lee lived in Tennessee and had “Eyes as dark as winter night, Lips as red as berry bright.”
The Christy’s Minstrels also included in their repertoire three other songs that reference attractive Black women as “roses” who are associated with geographic places. These were “The Virginia Rose-Bud,” “The Rose of Alabama,” and “The Rose of Baltimore.” As such, the original lyrics of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” indicate that the song can best be understood in the context of its fictional minstrelsy genre and not for any incident authentically associated with the state of Texas.
The earliest stand-alone sheet music for “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was copyrighted in 1858 and published by the Firth, Pond & Company, a music store located at 547 Broadway in New York City. This company, owned by John Firth and William A. Pond, Jr., had published twenty-two of Christy’s songs by 1858. Mark Camann (2010) contended that Edwin Christy himself may have been involved in publishing the song sheet.
The cover of the sheet music states that the song was “composed and arranged expressly for Charles H. Brown by J.K.” Brown, who is identified on the cover as a resident of Jackson, Tennessee, appears in the 1860 U.S. census for that town as a twenty-six-year-old bookseller with a wife and two young children. No sources have surfaced to date to indicate Brown’s relationship with the composer or why the song was composed for him.
The identity of “J.K.” has confounded musical historians for more than six decades. Richard Harwell (1950) claimed that records in the New York Public Library suggest the composer’s name was “Knight.” Jim Bob Tinsley (1981) asserted that the best-known songwriter of that era with the surname Knight was Joseph Philip Knight, but none of his songs appear in a style similar to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Tinsley did not speculate on J. K.’s identity, but mentioned that musical historian C.E. Claghorn wrote an unpublished manuscript in 1977 arguing that the author was Joseph Kelp. Kelp arranged the song “Aura Lee,” published in Richmond, Virginia, in 1864, but that song was not written in the minstrelsy style.
In 2011 Yale Divinity School Library archivist Joan Duffy uncovered material indicating that the song’s composer might have been John Kelly, a famous minstrel banjoist, comedian, and composer who took the stage name “J. K. Campbell” in 1851 at the request of a fellow minstrel performer. According to Edward Le Roy Rice (1911), in 1859 and 1860 Campbell was working with George Christy’s Minstrels at Niblo’s Saloon in New York City under name of J. K. Edwards before changing his stage name back to J. K. Campbell. A minstrel “comic song” composed circa 1861 by “J. K. Campbell,” entitled “Ham Fat,” is similar in style to “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” One of the lines reads: “You may talk about your comfort, But Massa is the man ….”
The lyrics to the 1858 song sheet are similar but not identical to the 1853 lyrics. In the first stanza, J. K. refers to a “yellow rose in Texas” instead of a “yellow girl in Texas.” The 1853 chorus “She’s the sweetest girl of colour that this darkey ever knew” was changed to “She’s the sweetest rose of color this darkey ever knew.” The last stanza in the 1858 version states “we’ll sing the songs of yore” in place of “we’ll sing our sorrows o’er.” The complete lyrics from the 1858 song sheet are as follows:
There’s a yellow rose in Texas that I am going to see,
No other darkey knows her, no darkey only me;
She cried so when I left her, it like to broke my heart,
And if I ever find her we never more will part.
Chorus: She’s the sweetest rose of color this darkey ever knew,
Her eyes are bright as diamonds, they sparkle like the dew,
You may talk about your Dearest May, and sing of Rosa Lee,
But the Yellow Rose of Texas beats the belles of Tennessee.
Where the Rio Grande is flowing, and the starry skies are bright,
She walks along the river in the quiet summer night;
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again, and not to leave her so.
Oh! Now I’m going to find her, for my heart is full of woe,
And we’ll sing the song together, that we sung so long ago;
We’ll play the banjo gaily, and we’ll sing the songs of yore,
And the yellow rose of Texas shall be mine forevermore.
An advertisement by the Firth, Pond & Co. on the verso of an early edition of the song sheet, bearing the date 1859, offers the music at a price of 25 cents with a notation indicating the song’s popularity:
It is a most astonishing fact, that three thousand copies have been printed and sold of this pleasing song since the new year. The demand has in no wise abated, and we desire all our friends to purchase a copy at once.
The sheet music melody was initially arranged for the piano, but the 1859 advertisement also offered for sale a second version of the song arranged by Napoleon W. Gould expressly for the guitar. Gould was an accomplished music composer, teacher, and performer who came to the United States from England in 1848 and became a featured performer at the Christy’s Minstrels show the following year. The Firth, Pond & Company subsequently published the song sheet with “piano” and “guitar” printed on the cover sheet. After the firm split in 1863, the rights to the song were retained by the William A. Pond & Co., which republished the song sheet in its name using the identical 1858 cover for piano and guitar. All of these early song sheets indicated that they were engraved by “Quidor,” who was likely George W. Quidor, a song sheet engraver who lived in New York City.
The song sheet was sold in the South during the Civil War as “Southern music.” John C. Schreiner & Son, of Macon, Georgia, featured the piano version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” by J. K. as one of twelve songs in The Southern Musical Boquet [sic], Favorite Songs and Ballads No. 4, published during the war. The lyrics also appear in “Songs of Love and Liberty Compiled by a North Carolina Lady,” attributed to Marinda Branson Moore and published in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1864. John W. Davies & Sons was offering the music for sale in Richmond, Virginia, in February 1865. Houston resident Maud J. Young, a teacher at the Houston Academy and a widow, wrote the “Song of the Texas Rangers” to the melody of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and published the lyrics anonymously in several newspapers, including the San Antonio Herald on March 14, 1863. After the war, Mary T. Tardy (1870) revealed Young as the author. According to Harold Simpson (1968), Texas troops in Virginia popularized the song. Confederate veterans in 1904 and 1906 published an anecdote of Gen. John B. Hood’s 1864 retreat in Tennessee indicating that one soldier sang the following lyrics in Hood’s presence:
And now I’m going Southward, for my heart is full of woe.
I’m going back to Georgia, to find my ‘Uncle Joe.’
You may talk about your dearest maid [sic] and sing of Rosalie,
But the gallant Hood of Texas played hell in Tennessee.
In the 1860s, when minstrel shows became popular in England, Boosey & Sons, of London, published “The Yellow Rose of Texas” as one of sixty songs in Boosey’s Musical Cabinet, The Christy’s Minstrels Song Book (Second Volume). In 1862 an English woman, who called herself “Elfie B.,” wrote that the song “has the merit of being sweet and dignified.” She remarked it “is the very prettiest melody of the class we ever heard. It must become a favourite.” After the Civil War, the song was published as a broadside ballad sheet by several leading American printers, including Henry De Marsan, A.W. Auner, J.H. Johnson, and Henry J. Wehman. In 1894 the melody was imitated in Paul Dresser’s “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,” a song recorded by Dan W. Quinn in 1896.
By the late nineteenth century the song’s notoriety inevitably led to its association with the yellow flowers. In what may have been the first instance in which a politician cleverly attempted to adopt the imagery, newspapers in 1892 reported that Governor James Hogg wore “the yellow rose of Texas” on the lapel of his coat during his successful reelection campaign. In 1900 the Palestine (Texas) Self-Culture Club, headed by Texas history author Mrs. Percy V. Pennybacker, selected “the yellow rose of Texas” as the club flower. By 1918 the coneflower known as the Rudbeckia was commonly referred to as the “Yellow Rose of Texas.” By the 1960s both the kerria japonica (Japanese Rose, which is actually a shrub) and the rosa harisonii, a rose known as Harison’s Yellow, were colloquially referred to as the “Yellow Rose of Texas.”
The song’s sustained popularity into the early twentieth century is evidenced by its republication in 1906 by William A. Pond & Company. This version was published in an English-German bilingual format arranged by William Dressler for a male voice quartette. The 1906 edition, like all other editions predating 1906, followed the 1858 lyrics with its heavily racial and minstrel theme.
“The Yellow Rose of Texas” was sung occasionally at patriotic and public gatherings prior to 1930, but its popularity was revived as a cowboy tune in 1933 when Gene Autry and Jimmie Long gave the song wider acceptance and appeal by revising the lyrics. Among other changes, they replaced “no other darkey knows her, no darkey only me” with “no other fellow knows her, nobody else but me.” The revised lyrics thus made the song racially neutral, and the “yellow rose” became symbolic of the attractive woman’s beauty, not her race. Nick Manoloff arranged a version of the song in 1935 with ukulele chords, guitar chords, and a “special Hawaiian chorus.” His song was published by the Calumet Music Co. and performed by Bradley Kincaid and by the duo Bob Atcher and Laura Applegate (known as Bonnie Blue Eyes).
Musician David W. Guion copyrighted two versions of the song in 1936, both with sanitized lyrics, including a cowboy tune in “high voice” and an orchestra arrangement written in honor of the Texas Centennial and dedicated to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Guion claimed to have written the words in 1930, prior to the Autry and Manoloff versions, based on his memory from when his parents sang the song to him when he was a boy. Mark Camann (2010) carefully analyzed Guion’s works and concluded that his claims were “implausible” and “almost inconceivable.” Nonetheless, stories from that era indicate that Guion’s version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was one of Roosevelt’s favorite songs.
The motion picture titled The Yellow Rose of Texas (1944) featured Roy Rogers as an insurance investigator searching for missing money. The plot had no connection to the original or revised lyrics of the song, and the movie was not named for the song. Instead, the title was the name of a showboat where much of the plot unfolded. Nevertheless, during a group performance on the showboat, Rogers and Dale Evans sang a duet of the namesake song with modern lyrics as part of the musical score.
The song reached the height of its popularity in 1955 when Mitch Miller and his orchestra produced a new arrangement of the song authored by Don George. Once again the lyrics omitted any reference to the song’s original racial caricatures. The “yellow rose” was referred to as the “sweetest little rose bud that Texas ever knew” instead of “she’s the sweetest rose of color this darkey ever knew.” In contrast to the cowboy versions from the 1930s, this score was arranged to portray the tune as a Confederate marching song with a military drum cadence. Miller’s photo on the cover of the sheet music features him wearing a Confederate uniform and hat.
Miller’s performance of the song became a Number 1 hit in 1955 and sold more than one million copies. During the same year Johnny Desmond sang another version of the song, and Stan Freberg sang a parody, both of which made the hit charts. Also in 1955, Ernest Tubb recorded a Top 10 country western version of the song. Three recordings of the song were made in England by Lester Ferguson, Gary Miller, and Ronnie Hilton, respectively, with Miller’s version reaching Number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in 1955. In 1956 Mitch Miller’s rendition of the song became popular in Australia, with the sheet music showing Miller wearing a different Confederate uniform. When Rock Hudson started a fist fight at the diner called Sarge’s Place in the movie Giant (1956), the melody of the song was playing in the background.
Elvis Presley included a rock-and-roll arrangement in the movie Viva Las Vegas (1964). His lyrics are also devoid of racial overtones:
Oh the yellow rose of Texas is the only girl I love
Her eyes are even bluer than Texas skies above
Her heart’s as big as Texas and wherever I may go
I’ll remember her forever because I love her so.
There are so many roses that bloom along the way
But my heart’s in Amarillo and that’s where it will stay
With the yellow rose of Texas so I’d better get there fast
‘Cause I know I was her first love and I want to be her last.
Politicians in the 1950s and 1960s were quick to seize on the wide popularity of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and its iconic association with the yellow rose flower. The national Democratic Party theme song in 1956 was based on the melody of the song. Yellow rose bouquets greeted President Dwight D. Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy on their respective trips to Texas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Lyndon Johnson’s whistle-stop train tour through the South during his 1960 vice presidential campaign featured the song as the train arrived at and departed from each stop. Senator Ralph Yarborough adopted the song and flower as a theme for his statewide campaigns from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Governor Allan Shivers, before his term ended in 1957, inaugurated the gubernatorial “Yellow Rose of Texas Award” given in honor of Texas women who have demonstrated outstanding volunteer and community service.
“The Yellow Rose of Texas” took on a new and entirely different meaning in 1961 when the song was first publicly linked to an anecdote about the battle of San Jacinto. This anecdote, recorded by Englishman William Bollaert during a trip to Texas (1842–44), stated that the 1836 battle was lost to the Mexicans because a mulatto girl named Emily, who belonged to Col. James Morgan, was closeted in Santa Anna’s tent at the time the battle commenced. According to this account, Emily detained Santa Anna so long that he was unable to restore order as the Texans attacked the Mexican camp. The story would have been unknown today except that Bollaert’s papers from his Texas trip, including the anecdote buried in an unpublished essay, were acquired by the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1911.
The story was discovered from those papers and initially appeared in print as a footnote by Joe Frantz in his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Texas (1946) and subsequently in the published version of his dissertation, entitled Gail Borden: Dairyman to a Nation (1951). W. Eugene Hollon and Ruth Lapham Butler, in William Bollaert’s Texas (1956), transcribed Bollaert’s papers and mentioned the story again, also in a footnote. The mulatto girl, known in this anecdote only as “Emily” who belonged to James Morgan, was referred to during the 1960s and 1970s as Emily Morgan under the belief she was Morgan’s slave, but a passport record in the Texas State Library in Austin, first associated with Emily’s story in 1976, and an employment contract found in 1991 in a private collection and held since 2004 at the University of Texas at Arlington Library Special Collections, substantiated that she was a free woman named Emily D. West. She was hired by Morgan in New York City in 1835 to work for him for one year at his place called New Washington (now Morgan’s Point). Both names are often conflated today, as evidenced by the inaptly-named Emily Morgan Hotel which opened in 1985 across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio.
In the late 1950s R. Henderson Shuffler, head of the Texas A&M office of information and publication and subsequently the first director of the Institute of Texan Cultures, was bothered that this “unsung” heroine of Texas was not better-known or appreciated. Shuffler was determined to associate her with a song and initially felt that Emily should be connected with “Will You Come to the Bower?”—a bawdy tune that was played at the battle of San Jacinto. But by July 1959 he focused his attention on “The Yellow Rose of Texas” instead. He wrote to folklore singer John A. Lomax, Jr., the oldest son of famed folklorist John A. Lomax, seeking confirmation of his latest “hunch” that this song “grew up around the stories of Emily.” Shuffler later wrote Lomax in February 1960: “if there is not, as I still suspect, a remote connection between the story of Emily and the original folk song version of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ there should be.”
Shuffler and Lomax related these thoughts to Shuffler’s close friend Frank X. Tolbert, a Texas history columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Tolbert obliged his friends by publishing the first reference to a putative link between Emily and the song in An Informal History of Texas (1961). After relating the anecdote about Emily as recorded by Bollaert, Tolbert wrote:
And what became of Emily? She lived to tell her story … and to inspire a wonderful song. Musical historians seem to agree that the folk song ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ was inspired by a good-looking mulatto slave girl. And in one set of original lyrics – not the ones popularized by Mitch Miller – the girl of the song is called ‘Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point.’
In 1970 Tolbert acknowledged that Shuffler and Lomax helped him with the “musical research,” although he qualified his 1961 claim by stating that Emily “may have inspired” the song. In a speech published in 1972, Shuffler himself was hesitant in making a direct link. He concluded that “there is some indication” that Emily was the original “Yellow Rose” and that she was a “fitting candidate” for the song, but the closest he came to asserting a direct link was to say that Emily “may well have been the original Yellow Rose.”
Tolbert’s claim that “one set of original lyrics” names the girl in the song “Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point” is baffling. Such lyrics, if they exist, would buttress the link between Emily and the song, but the source of those lyrics was never publicly revealed by Tolbert, Shuffler, or Lomax. Historians have yet to find any such source or any lyrics that refer to the “yellow rose” as “Emily” or lyrics referencing a “Maid of Morgan’s Point.” The lyrics from “The Yellow Rose of Texas” published in 1853 and 1858 bear no resemblance to Emily’s story as related by Bollaert, or what is known about her from the passport record and employment contract. Those lyrics do not mention “Emily,” James Morgan, Morgan’s Point, Santa Anna, the battle of San Jacinto, or any incidents relating to the Texas Revolution. The only geographic feature mentioned is the Rio Grande which is located more than 300 miles from Morgan’s home and San Jacinto battleground. While the mulatto girl named “Emily,” as mentioned in Bollaert’s account, and the unnamed “yellow rose of Texas,” as mentioned in the song, were both of mixed race, that fact is a coincidence rather than evidence of an association.
In articles published in 1970 and 1971, followed by a book in 1976 published by Shoal Creek Publishers, Martha Anne Turner gave the fictional link between Emily and the song an aura of scholarly respectability. Turner was a Texas history author and English professor at Sam Houston State University. Her book, The Yellow Rose of Texas: Her Saga and Her Song (1976), was the first full-length work focused on both the song and Emily’s story. Turner unabashedly accepted the authenticity of the link between Emily and the song, relying on nothing more than the assertions made by Tolbert and Shuffler. She also accepted Tolbert’s claim that one set of lyrics referred to “Emily, the Maid of Morgan’s Point,” but did not cite any authority for that conclusion other than Tolbert.
Turner also contended, by what she referred to as a logical deduction based on the absence of a postal cancellation, that an undated manuscript of the lyrics found in the A. Henry Moss Papers at the University of Texas was carried by a courier predating the establishment of the Texas postal service in 1838. She concluded that this manuscript, whose author is presumably identified by the initials “H. B. C.,” was therefore “possibly” written in 1836. This assertion implies a closer-in-time cause-and-effect connection between Emily and the song, but she cited no documents to substantiate her theory. Moreover, with the exception of five misspelled words, the lyrics on that manuscript are identical to the 1858 lyrics, suggesting that the author apparently had no knowledge of the 1853 lyrics and was likely transcribing the words from a publication of the 1858 sheet music.
The published works of Shuffler, Tolbert, and Turner thus completely changed the meaning and origins of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and laid the foundation for one of the most enduring and sensational inaccuracies of Texas history. They also embellished Emily’s story to the point that it became difficult to discern truth from fiction. Margaret S. Henson in the 1980s and 1990s was one of the most outspoken historians who attempted to raise an awareness of their flawed analysis and exaggerations, but the link between Emily and the song continued unabated in popular literature. James Michener’s Texas (1987), the bestseller that combined history and fiction, gave credibility to the link, as did Anita Bunkley in her novel Emily, The Yellow Rose: A Texas Legend (1989).Texas Folklore Society secretary and editor F. E. Abernethy (2001) observed: “The Emily-YRT connection was good copy and journalists jumped on it like a duck on a June bug in feature stories and Sunday supplements.” Abernethy published a remarkable article in 2001 in which he blamed himself (mea culpa in his words) for the Texas Folklore Society’s publication of articles in 1972, 1981, and 1996 that helped foster “this popular misinformation linking Emily and the YRT song.” Abernethy acknowledged that no documents support the link and that the song was not a “folk song.”
Margaret Henson’s article on Emily D. West in The New Handbook of Texas (1996), though not without errors of its own, emphatically refuted the connection between Emily and the song as the product of “twentieth-century myth-makers.” Nonetheless, the imagery associating Emily’s story with the song became so powerful that many scholars unwittingly accepted the link as authentic. For example, a short history of the song published in the first edition of The Handbook of Texas Music and copied into The Handbook of Texas Online (as of 2011) assumed the historical connection as unquestioned fact. It is unlikely that the invalid association between Emily and the song will ever fully diminish because the link has now itself become part of modern Texas lore. Henderson Shuffler could not have imagined the consequences in 1960 when he first proposed the idea that Emily may have been the inspiration of the song when he wrote to John Lomax: “Surely, such a genuine heroine of the battle for Texas freedom should not go unsung.”
The song saw another brief resurgence in popularity in 1983–84 with the TV miniseries called The Yellow Rose. This soap opera was set on a fictional 200,000-acre West Texas ranch. The theme song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” sung by country singers Johnny Lee and Lane Brody, became a Number 1 country hit in 1984.
As of 2011 the song was not as popular as it was in the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, but it continued to resonate as a widely recognized melody. As a testament to its worldwide legacy, travelers could find restaurants named “The Yellow Rose of Texas” in both Peru and Spain. The song also had made its way to the African nation of Kenya where Jessica Yates, a daughter of missionaries and a Kenyan native, heard it sung by a Santa Claus-dressed robot at a shopping mall kiosk. The song’s reference to Texas and its familiar melody, association with yellow flowers, and modern connection to Emily D. West and the battle of San Jacinto, will ensure that the song remains one of the state’s most enduring and classic tunes.