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"The Yellow Rose of Texas" is a traditional American folk song dating back to at least the 1850s. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time. Several versions of the song have been recorded, including by Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Mitch Miller.
The earliest known version is found in Christy's Plantation Melodies. No. 2, a songbook published under the authority of Edwin Pearce Christy in Philadelphia in 1853. Christy was the founder of the blackface minstrel show known as the Christy's Minstrels. Like most minstrel songs, the lyrics are written in a cross between the dialect historically spoken by African-Americans and standard American English. The song is written in the first person from the perspective of an African-American singer who refers to himself as a "darkey," longing to return to "a yellow girl," a term used to describe a light-skinned bi-racial woman born of African-American and white progenitors.
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. 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, and reached #1 on the U.S. pop chart the same week Giant star James Dean died. Stan Freberg had a simultaneous hit of a parody version in which the bandleader warred with the snare drummer, Alvin Stoller, who also featured prominently in Miller's arrangement. Billboard ranked Miller's version as the No. 3 song of 1955.
Earliest known version, from Christy's Plantation Melodies. No. 2:
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
She's the sweetest girl of color
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
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
The "Dearest Mae" and "Rosa Lee" referenced in the song are the titles of two other songs also appearing in Christy's Minstrels songbooks.
Twenty-five years later, the lyrics were changed to eliminate the more racially specific lyrics, with "soldier" replacing "darkey"; and the first line of the chorus, "She's the sweetest rose of color" (a reference to the African-European free people of color) changed to "She's the sweetest little flower ..."
"Dearest Mae" is replaced with "Clementine" in some variant versions of the 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:
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 "darkey." The same substitution is made throughout the song.
In September 1955, for six weeks, Mitch Miller had a Billboard number one hit with "The Yellow Rose of Texas", and 13 months later, Miller's hit version was used for a key scene in the 1956 Texas-based film Giant. Miller's lyrics used "rosebud" and no words - except the term "yellow" - to indicate either Rose or the singer was a person of color. The 1955 song became a gold record. The song achieved the #2 position in the UK and the #1 position in Australia.
In 1984, country music artists Johnny Lee and Lane Brody recorded a song called "The Yellow Rose," which retained the original melody of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" but with new lyrics, for the title theme to a TV series also entitled The Yellow Rose. It was a Number One country hit that year.