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Down in Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
When Texas experienced its second great oil boom in 1917, a word wrangler named Elmer Fisk felt moved to poetry.

He wrote a piece of doggerel called "Down in Texas" that captured what the rest of the nation wanted to believe about the Lone Star State's petroleum boom towns, places like the aptly named Ranger in Eastland County.

An internet search turns up nothing on Fisk except a hobbyist's Web site collection of Western post card poetry, a long-extinct genre. Whether Fisk wrote his poem for publication in a newspaper or magazine, or whether he wrote it specifically for inclusion on a Texas post card is open to conjecture.

If Fisk was even a Texan, maybe he was a descendant of Greenleaf Fisk, San Jacinto Battle veteran and early settler in Brown County. Folks named a community in that county in Fisk's honor, and down in Travis County, some of his kinfolks founded a long-vanished town north of Austin called Fiskville.

No matter Elmer Fisk's genealogy, he penned a best seller with "Down in Texas." However it found its way into print, his 236-word poem remained popular for the next couple of decades. Bordered by 14 thumbnail images of oil derricks, gushers and oil field fires, the penny post card could be purchased at any drug store or train station in the state. It sold by the tens of thousands and went all over the world, fueling the perception of Texas as a wild and wooly destination soaked in black gold.

Here's Fisk's poem, long in the public domain:
"Down in Texas."

We're down here in old Texas,
Where you never have the blues,
Where the bandits steal the jitneys
And the marshals steal the booze;
Where the buildings horn the skyline,
Where the populace is boost,
Where they shoot men just for pastime,
Where the chickens never roost,
Where the stickup men are wary
And the bullets fall like hail;
Where each pocket has a pistol
And each pistol's good for jail;
Where they always hang the jury,
Where they never hang a man
If you call a man a liar, you
Get home the best you can

Where you get up in the morning,
In a world of snow and sleet
And you come home in the evening
Suffocating in the heat;
Where the jitneys whiz about you
And the street cars barely creep;
Where the burglars pick you pockets
While you 'lay me down to sleep;'
Where the bulldogs all have rabies,
And the rabbits they have fleas;
Where the big girls, like the wee ones,
Wear their dresses to their knees;
Where you whisk out in the morning
Just to give your health a chance;
Say 'Howdy' to some fellow who
Shoots big holes in your pants;
Where wise owls are afraid to hoot
And birds don't dare to sing,
For it's hell down here in Texas,
Where they all shoot on the wing.
("Jitney" was a common term in the early part of the 20th century for a small car or bus that for a fee carried passengers on a regular schedule.)

In the early 1930s, as the state approached its centennial of independence from Mexico, someone decided that Fisk's poem should be modified to reflect a somewhat better view of Texas.

A card mailed from Houston in 1933, printed by Seawall Specialty Co. of Houston and Galveston, contained this non-rhyming, upbeat afterword:

"But how different now-skyscrapers, beautiful parks and boulevards, fine schools and beautiful churches, rich farms and prosperity everywhere-the land of promise for the home seeker."
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" >
July 6 , 2006 column
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