Last week, the punditocracy mocked the awful pro-Hillary campaign song “Stand with Hillary.” Purportedly a country music video, it’s a string of banalities and cliches, and should have been subtitled “People in fly-over country are so stupid that we think they will like this.” But all is not lost, musically speaking, for Mrs. Clinton. There’s already a great pro-Hillary anthem, an this excellent version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” made for the 2008 Texas primary.
The video was produced by “kyforhillary,” and appears to be the only YouTube contribution by this Kentuckian. It’s the creation of a human being who actually has personal ideas about Hillary Clinton’s merits–that she has passed some good laws which helped Texans, and that she is a strong leader who really connects with ordinary Americans. You may or may not agree with the viewpoint , but it’s at least sincere, and the song itself is part of the Great American Songbook, not some corpo-pac’s notion of what a country song sounds like.
It’s not surprising that the “The Yellow Rose of Texas” would work so well as pro-Hillary song, for it is impressively versatile, capable of many meanings and interpretations. The standard version, as of the late 20th century, was by Mitch Miller; if you don’t already know him, you will be impressed with his beard, at least if you live in Brooklyn. Roy Rogers and Ernest Tubb performed “Yellow Rose” as swing music, Hoyt Axton as classic folk, Elvis as 1950’s pop (with his own lyrics). The leading modern version is a excellent country music video by Lane Brody and Johnny Lee, about a drifter and the woman who loves him.
Not everybody loved “The Yellow Rose.” According to Robert Caro, at a 1960 South Carolina whistlestop tour in the 1960 Presidential campaign, Democratic Vice-presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson (Texas Senator, and Senate Majority Leader) spoke at a rally which was concluded by “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Thinking that the microphone was off, Johnson turned to his aide Bobby Baker, and told him, “Bobby, turn off that fuckin’ yeller rose.”
While the song predates the Civil War, it became a favorite of Confederate soldiers, especially Texas cavalrymen, longing for the girl back home. This makes the original history of the song all the more intriguing, and subversive in a good sense. The lyrics that you have heard are not the original ones. Tom Roush’s beautiful rendition uses the published 1858 lyrics; the “Yellow Rose of Texas” is not (as in later versions) “the sweetest little rosebud”; she is the “the sweetest rose of color.” In other words, the “yellow rose” to whom the singer hopes to return to and never again leave is not a blonde; she is a light-skinned woman of color. The “Yellow Rose of Texas” thus celebrates inter-racial love.
At least in legend, the original “Yellow Rose of Texas” was Emily West, a black woman from New York who moved to Texas, and saved the incipient Republic of Texas in 1836. During the Texas War of Independence, the Mexican tyrant/general Santa Anna had abducted West to be his temporary “wife.” On the day of the battle of San Jacinto, West kept Santa Anna amorously distracted in his tent, and the Mexican army was routed. So Emily West is the Texan version of of the biblical heroine Judith, who saved the Hebrew nation by seducing an enemy general. In some early versions of the song, the narrator who longs to return to his yellow rose is a black man.
What does “The Yellow Rose of Texas” mean? Ever since the song was composed (probably) around 1836, its has meant many things, not all of them consistent with each other. As with any part of a nation’s cultural heritage, every new generation must add its own meaning to what has come before. It is broad enough to include people of all different skin and hair colors. Indeed, while some versions identify the singer as a soldier, none of them say that the singer is male; so if you want to imagine that the song is about two women, you’re free to do so. And you probably won’t be the first.
If the singer of “Yellow Rose” finds her again, then “We’ll sing the songs together we sung so long ago.” When leaders join us in singing old songs with additional meaning–as in 2008 Obama inauguration’s inspiring versions of “This Land is Your Land” (Springsteen/Seeger) and “My Country ’tis of Thee” (Aretha Franklin)–they bring us together as Americans, regardless of party, race, sex, or hair color. When they condescend to us with music written for a presumed audience of gullible dolts, they earn the rejection they deserve. The 2016 election will turn, in part, on whether Americans consider the candidate on the ballot to be the phony character of “Stand with Hillary,” or our can-do Yellow Rose.