I’d always thought of “You Are My Sunshine” as a children’s song. But then Dara started asking me to play it. She was a sparkly-eyed cutie with a head of soft, white curls, who brightened everyone’s day despite her advanced dementia. I’d play her request, she’d giggle and ask me to play it again. Others seemed to enjoy the song, too, and sang along to the chorus. I started tossing in “You Are My Sunshine” occasionally at other volunteer gigs. Each time, people couldn’t resist singing.
The song appeared in 1940 on a hit recording by Jimmie Davis, a Louisiana court clerk who moonlighted as a hillbilly singer at his local radio station. Davis is thought to have also written the tune, but its origins are a bit murky. Gene Autry and Bing Crosby covered it in 1941. When Davis ran for Louisiana governor in 1944, he made “You Are My Sunshine” his campaign theme, and when he sought another term 20 years later, he once again used it during stump speeches and fundraisers.
“You Are My Sunshine” is easy to sing, its notes clustered in mid-range, its beat predictable.
The chorus is a declaration of pure and simple love. The melancholy verses, however, tell the story of a troubled relationship, and are often left out of versions for children:
The other night dear, as I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms.
When I awoke dear, I was mistaken,
So I hung my head and cried.
I’ll always love you and make you happy,
If you will only say the same.
But if you leave me to love another,
You’ll regret it all some day.
You told me once, dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between.
But now you’ve left me and love another,
You have shattered all my dreams.
Over the years a wide range of singers have given “You Are My Sunshine” their distinctive interpretation: Ray Charles (with the Raelettes on backing vocals), Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, even Ike and Tina Turner. It has been a lullaby, a campfire song, a French’s mustard promotional tune. And it brings a smile to the faces of my senior audiences. The ultimate crossover hit.
Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.