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Gary Borders: 'You Are My Sunshine' isn't all that sunny

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I decided to add “You Are My Sunshine” to the repertoire of songs I can mangle on the guitar. So I found it with the OnSong app, uploaded and opened it. Most everybody knows the chorus to this tune, popularly believed to have been written by Jimmie Davis, who rode his fame singing that song all the way to the Louisiana governor’s mansion in 1944. Term limits kept him from running for re-election, but a decade or so later, Davis reprised the song and won another four-year term as governor.

Actually, Davis did not write “You Are My Sunshine.” He purchased the song from Charles Mitchell in 1939 and recorded it for the first time. He then claimed authorship. Apparently this was not an uncommon practice.

Mothers sing the chorus of “You Are My Sunshine” to their wee children. Rug rats learn it and belt it out with gusto. I have been mumbling the chorus for decades, sang it to my two older daughters as well when they were tykes. Since Davis’s debut, “You Are My Sunshine” has been recorded by Gene Autry, Lawrence Welk, Bing Crosby, Johnny Cash and many more. One writer for Salon called it the most ubiquitous song of the 20th century, second only to “Happy Birthday” in being sung. I think the “Star Spangled Banner” might be pretty high on that list as well, but there is no disputing that this song still thrives more than 75 years after first being recorded.

Now that I have downloaded the song to play, and examined the lyrics, I finally realized after more than five decades of happily singing the only semi-cheerful part of this ditty, that this is an extremely depressing song. We have been singing this downer song to tykes for decades, glossing over what this song is actually about. A woman has left her man for somebody else. Or she is about to kick him to the curb. That, of course, is one of the two themes of country music: loving or leaving.

So, here’s the first stanza:

The other night dear, as I lay sleepin'
I dreamed, I held you in my arms
When I awoke dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cry.

Then it’s the chorus, which we all know and love:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You'll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don't take my sunshine away.

OK, so far so good. We can sing along with gusto and minimal depression. But the song quickly heads into the Land of Lexipro.

You told me once dear, you really loved me
And no one else could come between us
But now you've left me and you love another
And you have shattered all my dreams.

   Hoo boy. Things are heading downhill. Once more with the chorus, which now doesn’t ring as cheerfully. Then the final stanza:

I'll always love you and make you happy
If you will only say the same
But if you leave me to love another
But you'll regret it all some day.

This is beginning to sound a bit threatening, a tad stalkerish. It is hard to imagine singing the entire song to a group of first-graders in hopes of soothing them. So we just stick to the chorus.

On YouTube, I found a video of Jimmie Davis in 2000 singing “You Are My Sunshine” at the age of 100. Davis can be forgiven for stopping after the first stanza and chorus, and he did a creditable job. But it made me wonder. Had the song become too depressing even for the fellow who became famous singing it?

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.