Former Louisiana governor and songwriter Jimmie Davis died Sunday at his Louisiana home at the estimated age of 101 years old. The “Singing Governor,” who penned the timeless tune “You Are My Sunshine,” was one of those rare men about whom seldom was heard a disparaging word.
According to his Country Music Hall of Fame plaque, Davis was born on Sept. 11, 1902, but historians — and Davis himself — have cited 1899 as his actual birth year. The CMHoF claimed in a notice of the governor’s death that he was country music’s first centenarian, lending further credence to the earlier birthdate.
Born in a shotgun shack in Beech Springs, La., Davis was one of eleven children. He washed dishes and busked for money until he could afford to attend Louisiana College. Pursuing parallel recording and political careers, Davis had his first significant hit in the mid-Thirties with “Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine” on the fledgling Decca Records. In 1938 he was elected to the post of Shreveport, La.’s Commissioner of Public Safety. Two years later Davis entered the national cultural consciousness with his recording of “You Are My Sunshine,” which launched a period of Davis synergy unlike any entertainer/politician before or since. Davis appeared in five films during the Forties, including Louisiana, which followed his life story up to his 1944 run for the governor’s office in Louisiana. Combining live outdoor performances with (comparatively) short speeches about his political platforms, Davis halted a gubernatorial run by a regime connected to corrupt former governor, Huey Long.
Davis’ reign as governor was well received in the state, and he also managed to chart with a handful of Top Five singles on the country charts during his first term. In 1948, he returned to recording full-time, but politics called again. This time around, Davis was on more dubious, and far less sunshiny, ground as he won the governorship again in 1960 on a segregationist platform. Considered something of a moderate on the issue (regionally speaking), Davis, nonetheless fought the federal government on the issue of integration, but was forced to yield to social change.
Following Davis’ second term he lost a bid for the governor’s office in 1971, which prompted a pulling away from the political life. Davis turned his attention to recording music, both secular and religious, predominantly the latter. In 1972 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he continued to record through the Eighties and into the Nineties.
Despite the swath of terror carved by the grim reaper’s scythe through country music in 1998 and 1999, during which some of country music’s best known legends and pioneers like Tammy Wynette and Owen Bradley passed away, 2000 has been a particularly hurtful year for the genre. The writers of two of the genre’s most enduring songs, “Tennessee Waltz” and “You Are My Sunshine,” have packed up the truck and headed towards the cosmic hoedown.
But Pee Wee King and Gov. Jimmie Davis represented something more special than single-hit novelties. Both men represented a similar vision of the American dream as the former, the son of Polish immigrants in Wisconsin, and the latter, born dirt poor in Louisiana contributed two permanent residents to the canon of American song.
Covered more than 300 times by an array of artists in a handful of different languages, “You Are My Sunshine” is a timeless piece of art, the simplicity of which transcends any Babel-esque differences in culture. While our political candidates dance around commitment to their beliefs and while contemporary country music churns out stacks of forgettable drivel, Gov. Jimmie Davis’ stance on integration proves he was a flawed man and leader, not unlike those who preceded and followed him. But (with that notable exception), Davis was genuinely committed to serving the people who composed his constituency, and was revered by his state and those who knew him. He also contributed something perfect to the world of song.
Gov. Jimmie Davis is survived by his wife Anna Gordon Davis and his son Jim Davis. His funeral will be held on Nov. 8, in Jonesboro, La.