From Singing Cowboys to Kitchen Appliances: The Long Strange Trip of ‘You Are My Sunshine’
‘You Are My Sunshine’ was published in January 1940, credited to Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell, although its authorship remains a matter of dispute. Following Davis’s 1940 recording, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ was widely popularized by Gene Autry, the archetype of the singing cowboy, an enormously popular but much-maligned musical form of the 1930s and 1940s. The song went on to be a huge hit, and was recorded consistently throughout the 1940s and 1950s by a wide range of performers, including Lawrence Welk, Kate Smith, Doris Day, Duane Eddy, and Ricky Nelson. The song was also recorded by a number of jazz musicians, including Les Brown, Nat King Cole, and Toots Thielemans, and was featured in a unique arrangement by the composer and bandleader George Russell.
Since the 1960s, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ has been subjected to a remarkable number of different readings and cover versions, reworked and reshaped to the demands of an apparently endless catalogue of styles and genres, from soul, surf rock and ska to bossa nova, bluegrass, and punk. And perhaps somewhat surprisingly, given its singing cowboy origins, the song has also established itself as a rather unlikely standard song in the jazz repertoire. In more recent decades, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ has become firmly ensconced in the public imagination as a children’s song – a somewhat curious phenomenon, given the dark nature of the lyrics. And in the early years of the twenty-first century, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ appeared in television commercials, supporting children’s charity fundraising and enlisted in selling Whirlpool domestic appliances, with the aid of the somewhat dark version of the song by Johnny Cash. In this paper, I chart the historical, musical, and semantic trajectory of ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ noting both its unprecedented ubiquity and remarkable resilience, suggesting that few other songs have achieved such levels of circulation and recognition.
Alan Stanbridge is an Associate Professor in Music and Culture at the University of Toronto, teaching courses on Critical Issues in Music and Society and Jazz History. He also teaches in the Master of Museum Studies Program. He has published numerous articles and book chapters on popular music and jazz history, and his recently completed book, Rhythm Changes: Jazz, Culture, Discourse, will be published by Routledge in 2020. In a previous life, Stanbridge pursued a 15-year career in professional arts management and music promotion in the UK, during which time he held the post of Director of the Glasgow International Jazz Festival.