Reconsidering the state song
Jason Raish Illustration
As the Louisiana tricentennial has drawn to a close, and Jazz Fest readies for its silver anniversary, it seems a fitting time to celebrate the Song of Louisiana. Er, make that, songs.
If you ask most folks in Louisiana what our “official” state song is, they will likely respond: You Are My Sunshine. And they would be 16.67 percent correct. Truth is, Louisiana has six “official” state songs, more than most other states by, well...five.
Discerning why the guiding lights of our state government have seen fit to anoint six different musical compositions as “official” state songs over the decades is above my pay grade. Even Bacchus might blush at the excess.
For the record, the first was Song of Louisiana, composed by Vashti Robertson Stopher, a professor of musical arts at LSU, and codified into law in 1932.
In 1952, the legislature adopted Louisiana My Home Sweet Home, co-written by Castro Carazo, Huey P. Long’s handpicked director of the LSU marching band, as our second “official” state song.
Next came Give Me Louisiana, enshrined by law in 1970 and written by the melodically named Doralice Fontaine.
Then, in 1977, You Are My Sunshine was adopted as the “official” official state song. But our audiophilic legislators were far from sated.
In 1990, our forward thinking representatives declared The Gifts of Earth, by Francis LeBeau, to be Louisiana’s “official” state environmental song. Then, ironically, it was a pair of catastrophic environmental disasters – Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – that prompted the legislature to declare Come Back to Louisiana, composed by Kenner natives Jay Chevalier and Bobby Attwood, as the “official” song of the recovery efforts for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
And that was the last word – or song – on the matter. So far.
No madrigal for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. No aria for the Saints Super Bowl victory. Hell, not even a roundelay for the state’s tricentennial.
Then again, perhaps six songs are enough. Although it seems a shame there’s no more room in state’s legal annals for such classics as When the Saints Go Marching In, Doug Kershaw’s Louisiana Man, Hank Williams’ Jambalaya or Randy Newman’s sublime Louisiana, 1927.
Or, for that matter, L’il Wayne’s La La La.
In general, “official” state songs celebrate the culture, history, agriculture, industry and geography of the pertinent state. But here’s the funny thing about You Are My Sunshine, Louisiana’s “official” official state song.
You know it, right? Everyone knows it. Every third grader in Louisiana, every American, and most residents of the enlightened Western world. Country music legend George Jones once proclaimed it: “The most ubiquitous piece of music of the 20th century, second only to “Happy Birthday” and “Shave and a Haircut.”
Made famous by former Governor Jimmie Davis during his first political campaign in the 1940s, the bright, infectious and, well – sunshiny – melody boosted him to the Governor’s office twice and was subsequently covered by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Carly Simon, Marvin Gaye, Mumford & Sons, Chris Stapleton and on and on and on.
Our state song! Cool, right?
But here’s the thing about You Are My Sunshine, the song that celebrates Louisiana, the song most identified with our state: Though some people think that Davis was the author, it was actually written by a guy from Georgia. And there’s not a word in it about Louisiana. Nothing. Nada.
The only marginally tenuous connection between the song and the state is that sometimes the sun shines here. But in the song, that’s only a metaphor.
Everyone knows the first verse of the song. In fact, it’s probably going through your head right now. But a casual examination of the rest of the lyrics reveal You Are My Sunshine to be the most vitriolic, menacing break-up song and stalker’s anthem ever recorded until Taylor Swift came on the scene.
From our “official,” official state song, a few snippets:
If you leave me to love another you’ll regret it all some day.
But now you’ve left me and love another you have shattered all my dreams.
There’s more. She took his sunshine away. He said please don’t. Fortunately, the song ends before he finds her in a roadside motel parking lot and goes all Taxi Driver on her.
The eighth verse, one presumes. Never published.
Our state song.