This is a wonderful song. Its beauty is timeless. There are expressions of love, loss and yearning in “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s an American classic. One would think the song, first recorded in 1939 by The Pine Ridge Boys, must have been written by one of the great composers of the time, perhaps Johnny Mercer. But, no, Mercer did not write it. Cole Porter? No. Duke Ellington? Not him either. Hoagy Carmichael? No. And, no, it wasn’t the Gershwins. As it turns out, the songwriting credits to “You Are My Sunshine” belong to Jimmie Davis, a country singer from Louisiana, and his sideman Charles Mitchell. But that doesn’t mean that Davis and Mitchell wrote the song. Actually, they bought it.
Selling songs was common practice in the 1930s and ’40s. Times were hard. A guy might sacrifice a possible fortune in the coming years for immediate needs such as food and shelter. One such guy was Paul Rice. He and his brother Homer recorded a version of “You Are My Sunshine” less than a month after The Pine Ridge Boys, with Rice claiming to be the song’s composer. His wife was in the hospital and there were bills to pay. So he sold it to Davis and Mitchell for $35. They both gave Rice $17.50 each. Mitchell eventually sold his share of the song to Davis, although in their agreement, Mitchell would still share songwriting credits.
But was Paul Rice the actual composer? There are other possibilities. According to Colin Escott in his biography of Hank Williams, the song was written by a woman in South Carolina. In the notes of his book, Pickin’ on Peachtree,“Wayne W. Daniel writes that an Oliver Hood, a musician and music teacher in LaGrange, Georgia, claimed to have written “You Are My Sunshine.” Hood, known for his mandolin playing and charming nature, passed away in 1959 but family members and his fellow musicians continue to declare Hood’s ownership of the song. His grandson wrote an essay claiming Hood had written “You Are My Sunshine” in the early ’30s. Family members have a paper sack on which Hood wrote the words. Hood eventually wrote as many as 20 verses. In the mid ’50s, one of his sons convinced Hood to write a song about that the song. Entitled “Someone Stole My Sunshine Away,” it was ready to be recorded by a band in California, but Hood, frustrated with copyrights and all things involving litigation, canceled the project.
Davis’ 1940 recording of “You Are My Sunshine” was a big hit across the nation. Having a very popular recording of the song he also owned set him up for life. He made the most of it. His popularity as a country singer paved the way for a career in politics. He was elected governor of Louisiana in 1944 for the one constitutionally-allowed consecutive term and then for another term in 1960. During his first term he ran a relatively progressive administration but Louisianans became irritated with his frequent trips to Hollywood. Davis, like many country singers of the time, made appearances in the cowboy films referred to as “horse operas.” Jimmie Davis was on your phonograph, on your movie screen and signing bills into law in Baton Rouge.
His second term was disappointing. Capitalizing on people’s bigotry and fears, Davis played the race card. Like other Southern governors such as Talmadge, Faubus, Barnett and, later, Wallace, he opposed integration in the public schools. According to The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, “Davis had tried to interpose himself to prevent school desegregation, only to have that and seven other moves by him and the legislature ruled unconstitutional by a panel of three federal judges and the Supreme Court.” On one occasion, Davis rode a horse up the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol to proclaim his opposition to integration, rather unusual for someone who advocated “peace and harmony” in his campaign.
Defenders of Jimmie Davis could point out he was not as vile as some of his contemporaries. He once said, “If you want to have any success in politics, sing softly and carry a big guitar.” Davis may have thought his actions against some of the people of his state would be viewed less severely by his critics, given his usual good nature, but his showmanship was little comfort to those seeking equality.
The efforts by Davis to enforce segregation were also little comfort to him as the years passed. Eventually he offered his apologies. Jimmie Davis had plenty of years to consider his shame, dying at the age of 101 in 2000.
“You Are My Sunshine” had been recorded by over 350 recording artists. A list of those covering the song are names from the Who’s Who of 20th century popular music. The greatest singing cowboy of them all, Gene Autry, recorded it, as did Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Carly Simon, Cyril Chestnut, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.* The early ’70s singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards would often sing a verse or two of the song on stage before singing his own hit, “Sunshine.” Brian Wilson used a portion of the song in his 2004 album, Smile. Appreciation for the song is universal.
Another lovely version of the song was sung at a service recently in Atlanta’s Peachtree Christian Church by 9-year-old twin sisters, Linose and Lena, from Haiti. Taught to them by their father, “You Are My Sunshine” is the only song they know in English. It was their way of expressing gratitude. Their story and the stories of those who have worked to help the girls and others in Haiti reflect the love, loss and hope imparted in the song.
The United Nations ranks Haiti at 149 of 182 countries in its Human Development Index (2006). Sally Haas of Mission for Biblical Literacy says the poverty there is devastating. Ms. Haas discovered Haiti in 2001 on a trip she had little idea she’d ever make. Looking back on that first of 17 trips, she says her life “came to a screeching halt.” What she saw then filled her with new purpose.
Only a 2-hour flight from Miami, Haiti is a world away from the lifestyle Americans take for granted. Most Haitians live with no running water, no sewer systems, no paved roads and no electricity. The island is being deforested in order to make charcoal, Haitians’ only source of fuel. There seems no end of trouble for the people of Haiti.
“You see everything there,” Ms. Haas noted. The health problems are immense and confounding. The potential for things to get worse is always present as the water is bad, malnutrition is common and poverty is so widespread that it seems impossible for conditions to improve.
One yearns for saintly benefactors to write big checks so the disease and poverty could be swept away from Haiti, village by village. But the world doesn’t work that way. Little-known but diligent people seek out individuals and projects to make a positive impact quickly. Small and carefully planned steps are made. Such steps brought Linose from her family’s hut in Haiti to Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital. She was just one-and-a-half then but already a large tumor was growing on one of her eyes. The surgery to remove the tumor was successful.
After three medical visits, Linose, along with her sister Lena, made a visit to Atlanta last summer but the trip was just for fun. It included a lot of time for play and meeting American children. It was Lena’s first trip to the U.S. and it left a big impression on her. The girls made an impression on others as well. They charmed their hosts and others who met them with their sweet spirit and music, which despite the sadness in Haiti, does invigorate its people. The love that Sally Haas and others share for the people of Haiti is also invigorating.
*Cash and Dylan recorded a version in February ’69, but it has never been officially released.
This story continues the Southern Song of the Day series.