Fresh Eyes

The original manuscript of “The Eyes of Texas” gets some TLC.


In 1903, a University of Texas student named Lewis Johnson was in a bind. He was producing a benefit show for the track team and needed a musical number to liven things up, but UT didn’t yet have a school song. So he asked his roommate, John Lang Sinclair, to pen one. • Sinclair—editor of the campus literary journal, a member of the glee club and marching band, and a football player—quickly penciled lyrics on a piece of brown paper.

That song, set to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” became one of the most famous melodies in the state and the official spirit song of the university: “The Eyes of Texas.”

That 112-year-old piece of paper, now faded to beige, has been on display in the Alumni Center for decades, mounted extra-securely to the wall to ward off possible theft from rival schools. This summer, the manuscript took a trip across campus to the Harry Ransom Center, where paper conservator Heather Hamilton gave it some much-needed care. Previous conservators had adhered a long-fiber Japanese paper, or washi, to the document to replace missing areas along its edges. These repairs eventually curled and became a distraction. Hamilton meticulously trimmed the excess paper to match the shape of the manuscript. Then she humidified and pressed the manuscript for about a week to reduce fold lines and flatten it. Finally, she hinged the document back onto its supporting backboard and reframed it.

Now looking a little sharper, the manuscript is back in the Alumni Center lobby for all to admire. With this modest treatment, there are hopes that the manuscript will last “ ’Til Gabriel blows his horn.”

Photo by Pete Smith.

This story first appeared on the Ransom Center’s blog, Cultural Compass


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