You Are My Sunshine is not necessarily a ‘happy song’

You Are My Sunshine is a happy song, right?

It’s talking about a person being someone else’s sunshine.

This is probably why my aunt used to sing the chorus to people she loved so often, especially my son (who I call The Boy for the sake of the blog).

Aunt Dianne sang the chorus of that song from the first time she met The Boy right after he was born up until right before she passed away two days before 2018 kicked off.

She sang it in the fun “hillbilly” way the song was originally written in, her original Southern accent in full swing and even more pronounced. It was usually sung while she had an arm around our necks and she’d end the chorus with a sloppy wet kiss on our cheek and a good-natured laugh.

When she passed away, Mom asked me if I would pull some photos together to display for her funeral, as I had for my paternal grandmother. I went into Walmart for some supplies, deciding I’d put together a display on poster board and then some extra photos in a photo album. As I walked up and down the arts and crafts aisle, still very much in the throes of grief, feeling like a heavy weight was on my shoulders, I was frozen in place by a photo album sitting at the front of the album display.

The words on the front were written in bright yellow: You Are My Sunshine.

I broke down right there in the aisle, clutching the album to my chest, feeling like it was a sign from Dianne, telling me she loved me.

A woman asked me if I was okay.

I sobbed out some words about my aunt dying and how she’d always sang this song to my son and me and the words on the album was some sign. I’m sure I didn’t make any sense at all.

The boy and I have a hard time hearing the song without everything inside us tightening up like the ropes on a ship sail and we usually turn it off or move somewhere we can’t hear it.

The other day I came across a version of it by a band called The Dead South and for some reason, I kept listening.

My heart ached listening to the familiar refrain, but I enjoyed their more maudlin interpretation of it because some of the lyrics suggest there is a bit of sadness in the song and The Dead South used a version of the song that makes the lyrics even more heartbreaking, maybe even a bit eerie. Yes, there is more than one version of the song, with some who sing it choosing to drop some of the more depressing parts to make it more of a lullaby.

The more upbeat version of the song, like the one sung by the original performer of the song — Jimmie Davis — or the one in the movie O’ Brother Where Art Thou, is what most people are used to hearing. If you really listen to the first verse, however, you’re already prepared for the song to be a little depressing.

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 I cried

As you see here, they awoke without that person in their arms, which is fairly melancholy, and why The Dead South version is probably one of the more accurate emotionally-wise versions that I have ever heard. A distant cousin hilariously disagreed with me when I shared it on Facebook, writing that the band had virtually “murdered” the song. Her response made me giggle because she was right, to a point anyhow. I think she felt it was a case of musical homicide because she was used to hearing my aunt, and others, sing it as a happy song. Believe me, I totally understand, but for some reason, The Dead South version still appeals to me, thought not as much as the version my aunt sang to me.

On its surface, You Are My Sunshine isn’t the saddest song ever, so it’s okay to sing it with a bit of an upbeat melody. Really, though, it’s clear that the point of view of the person singing it is practically begging the person they are singing to to stay with them.

You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
When skies are gray
You’ll never know, dear
How much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

Even more unsettling are the subsequent verses:

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 someday

It is this line —  You’ll regret it all someday — that The Dead South lead singer sings in a much more threatening way than most likely the author of the song originally intended.

This next verse isn’t much better:

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

So, if the original lyrics are sung to this song, it is much more of a downer than the perky tune suggests.

There is quite a bit of debate on who actually wrote the song even though two-time Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis and a man named Charles Mitchell are credited with it. Davis recorded it in 1940.

Lore has it that a man named Oliver Hood of Georgia actually wrote the song, but that Davis and Mitchell copyrighted it in 1940 after purchasing it from a man named Paul Rice who Hood’s family used to write with Hood.

In a 1990 article in Chronicles Magazine, writer Theodore Pappas claimed that Hood wrote the song and that his descendants back up this fact by saying he first sang it in 1933 at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in LaGrange.

Pappas also insisted that Davis never claimed authorship because he had purchased the song from Rice. Davis simply copyrighted in and renewed that copyright in 1967 with both his and Mitchell’s name on it.

In later interviews, Rice said he wrote the song in 1937 and based it on letters he had received from a girl in South Carolina who called him her “sunshine.” Rice also said that many people have claimed to have written the song over the years, despite him saying he had written it. After all my research, I’m also still not sure who ultimately put the more chipper melody to the words, Hood, Rice, or Davis.

In the end, the song still remains a favorite among many, no matter who wrote it.

If you are a fan of the more happy versions that have come out over the years, and dead set against listening to a more serious one, you probably wouldn’t be interested in The Dead South’s version. But if can bring yourself to listen to it, stick with it at least until the cello solo, which I think is perfectly lovely and saves the song for even the most stringent fan of the original version.

(If you are reading this through your WordPress reader, click through to the blog to see the video.)

What the different versions of this one song goes to show is how much inflection and tone can affect meaning, whether in song or the spoken word.

Regardless of who sings the song and how they sing it, it will always hold a special meaning for me and my family and for the person who sang it to us — the woman who was our sunshine when skies were gray.

4 thoughts on “You Are My Sunshine is not necessarily a ‘happy song’

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  3. I sing that to my grandchildren — but only the first part, the happy part. I surprised myself by liking The Dead South’s version you posted here. Written in a different key, it’s kind of haunting yet enjoyable to listen to.

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