"The Yellow Rose of Texas" is a traditional folk song. The original love song has become associated with the legend that Emily D. West, an indentured servant of color, "helped win the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle in the Texas Revolution."
The Center for American History at the University of Texas has an unpublished early handwritten version of the song, perhaps dating from the time of the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. The author is unknown; the earliest published version, by Firth, Pond and Company of New York and dated September 2, 1858, identifies the composer and arranger as "J.K."; its lyrics are "almost identical" to those in the handwritten manuscript, though it says it had been arranged and composed for the vaudeville performer Charles H. Brown.
The soundtrack to the TV miniseries James A. Michener's Texas dates a version of the song to June 2, 1933 and co-credits both the authorship and performance to Gene Autry and Jimmy Long. But, Don George reworked the original version of the song, which Mitch Miller made into a popular recording in 1955 that knocked Bill Haley's "(We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock" from the top of the Best Sellers chart in the U.S. Miller's version was featured in the motion picture Giant. Stan Freberg had a simultaneous hit of a parody version in which the bandleader warred with the snare drummer, who featured prominently in Miller's arrangement.
The song is believed by some to have been based on a Texas legend from the days of the Texas War of Independence. According to the legend, Emily D. West (also known as "Emily Morgan") was seized by Mexican forces during the looting of Galveston. She seduced General Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico and commander of the Mexican forces. The legend credits her supposed seduction of Santa Anna with lowering the guard of the Mexican army and facilitating the Texan victory in the Battle of San Jacinto waged in 1836 near present-day Houston. Santa Anna's opponent was General Sam Houston, who won the battle literally in minutes, and with almost no casualties. West was a mulatto, of mixed race ancestry. The original lyrics refer to her as the "yellow" rose, in keeping with the historical use of term "high yellow" as a description of light skin among people of color in the South.
Historians assert that if West was with Santa Anna, it was not by her choice, nor did she play any part in deciding the battle. The seduction legend was largely unknown until the publication in the 1950s of a version of the lyrics based on William Bollaert's account. Bollaert, a British subject, spent two years in Texas--1842 to 1844--and was a prolific writer, publishing more than 80 articles on various subjects.
The basic facts are that Emily West, a free person of color, migrated to Texas from New York City in late 1835 as an indentured servant under contract to the agent James Morgan. She was born free in New Haven, Connecticut. Sources describe her as a teen or as a woman of twenty. She was to work as a housekeeper at the New Washington Association's hotel, near what was then called New Washington and is now Morgan's Point. Historians say she became known by West's surname, as was the custom at the time for indentured servants and slaves.
Santa Anna reportedly saw West in April 1836 when he invaded New Washington prior to the Battle of San Jacinto. West and other black servants were taken to his camp, along with some white residents who were captured. According to legend, Santa Anna was with her when Texan General Sam Houston's troops arrived, forcing him to flee suddenly without weapons or armor and enabling his capture the next day. (Note: The seduction of a military leader by a beautiful woman who brings about his downfall, is featured in the Book of Judith, in the Apocrypha of the Bible.)
Original version, from the MS in the University of Texas archives
There's a yellow rose in Texas, that I am going to see,
No other darky knows her, no darky only me
She cryed so when I left her it like to broke my heart,
And if I ever find her, we nevermore will part.
She's the sweetest rose of color this darky 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 is the only girl for me.
When the Rio Grande is flowing, the starry skies are bright,
She walks along the river in the quite sic summer night:
She thinks if I remember, when we parted long ago,
I promised to come back again, and not to leave her so. Chorus
Oh now I'm going to find her, for my heart is full of woe,
And we'll sing the songs togeather sic, that we sung so long ago
We'll play the bango gaily, and we'll sing the songs of yore,
And the Yellow Rose of Texas shall be mine forevermore. Chorus
More than 25 years later, the lyrics were changed to eliminate the more racially charged lyrics. "Soldier" replaced "darky." And the first line of the chorus was also changed to read, "She's the sweetest little rosebud ...."
Sometimes "Dearest May" has been replaced by "Clementine".
Civil War song:
This song became popular among Confederate soldiers in the Texas Brigade during the American Civil War; upon taking command of the Army of Tennessee in July 1864, General John Bell Hood introduced it as a marching song. The final verse and chorus were slightly altered by the remains of Hood's force after their crushing defeat at the Battle of Nashville that December:
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 Beauregard, and sing of Bobby Lee,
But the gallant Hood of Texas played hell in Tennessee.
The modified lyrics reference famous Confederate military commanders Joseph Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Robert E. Lee. Texan veterans sang it openly to mock Hood's mishandling of their Nashville campaign.
In this version of the chorus, "soldier" replaced "darky." The same substitution is made throughout the song.
"The Yellow Rose":
In 1984, country music artists Johnny Lee and Lane Brody recorded a song called "The Yellow Rose". This song, which retained the original melody of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" but wrote new lyrics for it, was used as the title theme to a TV series also entitled The Yellow Rose. It was a Number One country hit that year.
There is also a children's text, which says:
The Yellow Rose of Texas
And (the) Man of Laramie
Invited Davy Crockett
(oh) to have a cup of tea.
(oh) The tea was so delicious
They had another cup
And left to Davy Crockett
To do the washing up.