Some songs stay with the world for decades, even centuries, after their writing.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
But those songs, which come to us before the music business took its modern form, often have a murky background. One such song with a mysterious origin story is “You Are My Sunshine,” a classic, bright folk tune born of love and brightness that has subsided through the years.
The song, which has been recorded hundreds, if not thousands of times, has also been done so in dozens of languages over the years. And in 1977 the song became the official state song of Louisiana.
But who wrote “You Are My Sunshine” and where did it come from? Let’s dive into the history of the song.
According to records, the song was first tracked by The Pine Ridge Boys, a group consisting of Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey. They recorded the tune on August 22, 1939, and later released it on October 6 of that year for Bluebird Records. The group recorded it in their hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and saw the song peak at No. 4 on October 26, 1940.
Crucially, no songwriter was listed at the time.
The same year, The Rice Brothers’ Gang recorded the track for Decca on September 13, 1939, also releasing a version in October of ‘39. The Rice Brothers’ Gang was from Georgia but later found themselves in Shreveport, Louisiana.
The writer on their record was listed as Paul Rice.
“You Are My Sunshine” was later published on January 30, 1940, by Jimmie Davis (a future two-time governor of Louisiana) and Charles Mitchell. It was copyrighted by Davis and Mitchell and published by Southern Music Publishing Co., Inc. of New York.
Davis and Mitchell later recorded it on February 5, 1940, at Decca Studios in the Big Apple. Both earned songwriting credit. When the copyright was renewed 17 years later on February 2, 1967, both of their names appeared on the track again.
In a November 1990 article by Theodore Pappas, in Chronicles Magazine, Oliver Hood of LaGrange, Georgia was credited as the true writer of the song. Pappas says that Davis purchased the song from Paul Rice, along with all the rights, before it was copyrighted and published. This was a relatively common practice amongst musicians before the music business took shape in the mid-20th century. (Indeed, on an unrelated note, some claim Hank Williams purchased some of his more famous songs from other writers.)
While the Rice Brothers are sometimes credited with writing the song, family members of Hood, a collaborator with Paul Rice, say that Hood wrote the song in the early 1930s and he first performed it as early as 1933.
An old newspaper article in The Shreveport Times stated, “on a day in 1939—no one seems to remember the exact date—Charles Mitchell and Jimmie Davis called the station KWKH to see Paul Rice (who was playing there at the time). Paul’s wife was in the hospital and he needed cash to pay her bills. He sold ‘Sunshine’ to Davis and Mitchell for $35. Each put in $17.50.”
If that is to be believed that it would be clear that Paul Rice wrote the song and then, needing money, sold it.
Said Rice, “I wrote ‘You Are my Sunshine’ in 1937. Where I got the idea for it, a girl over in South Carolina wrote me this long letter—it was long about seventeen pages. And she was talking about how I was her sunshine. I got the idea for the song and put a tune to it.”
Rice added, “At least 20 people claimed to have written ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ I had a gal write me from California that she wrote it.”
Davis and Mitchell Continued
Davis lived to be 101 years old. And throughout his life, he gave varying stories about the song. Interviewed for Dorothy Horseman’s 1975 book, Sing Your Heart Out Country Boy, he didn’t say he wrote the song. But he described how popular it’s become.
In 1998 liner notes for the song, Tony Russell wrote, “though Mitchell’s name appears on the copyright listing, he had already sold his half share to Davis.” Though, in even more conflicting reports, the records in the United States Copyright Archives state the copyright belonging to “Charles Mitchell (A); 2Feb67; R403742.”
In 1941, Gene Autry sang the song for his movie, Back in the Saddle. Later that year, he recorded the song for CBS Columbia Square Studio and it was released on July 10 on Okeh Records.
That same year, Bing Crosby recorded his version for Decca Records.
In 1962, Ray Charles recorded a version that hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart and No. 7 on the Hot 100.
2000 and 2001 Recognition
In 2000, the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame picked Davis’ version to earn the Towering Song Award.
In 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America put the song as No. 14 on their list of the 365 Songs Of The Century.
Today, the song is almost as ubiquitous as sunshine, itself.
The song is sung to lovers, children, and any other object of affection. Probably many feline owners have sung it to their whiskered friends. It’s a song about warmth, light, and love.
No matter who wrote it (though it seems like it was Paul Rice), it’s forever.