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You Are My Sunshine
A Reason To Smile
It is a staple song of childhood across generations, a mixture of music and lyrics that are simple, uplifting, and enduring. “You Are My Sunshine” has brought countless reasons to smile.
Undoubtedly, many of you can sing the chorus from memory:
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
From the mouths of children, the purity of words bursts forth — an ode to love and sunlight chasing away the gloomy gray skies of life. It has become a rallying cry in difficult times.
In 2013, a tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, and The New York Times related a story that touched the nation:
When the tornado sirens went off around 2:15, the staff of the AgapeLand Learning Center, a day care facility, hustled some 15 children into two bathrooms, draping them with a protective covering and singing songs with them to keep them calm.
As the wind ripped the roof off one of the bathrooms, and debris rained down on the children, they remained calm, singing “You Are My Sunshine,” the assistant director, Cathy Wilson, said. Though the day care center was almost entirely destroyed, the children were unharmed.
“Not a child had a scratch,” Ms. Wilson said.
(Tragically, dozens of others were killed by the devastating storm.)
This spirit of resilience, togetherness, and hope in the face of terror reminded me of a story I heard when I was stationed in London six decades ago. I was feeling low one evening, working late at the CBS News offices, when the cleaner came through singing “You Are My Sunshine.” My spirits lifted within the first few notes, but I was surprised that this little song was known across the Atlantic. The woman explained that British kids would sing it as they huddled under trucks and buses in the countryside during the Blitz of World War II. They had been sent out of London to avoid the worst of the bombings, and they used the song to steel themselves against the fear they all felt.
Various versions of the song are wonderful, but we were particularly moved by one recorded in Great Britain during the heart of the pandemic. It was the brainchild of famed choirmaster Gareth Malone, who had created the Great British Home Chorus. And this was the final installment, a collection of 11,000 human voices (with some pets for good measure), accompanied by members of the London Symphony Orchestra.
It is a beautiful smile- (and tear-) inducing tribute to what we can be if we sing together, no matter our differences.
It is an interesting twist of fate that this song has become a symbol of innocence and childhood, because the original version is anything but. Sure, the chorus is sweet, but the context around it is a lot more complicated. The song is actually about a failed love affair.
It goes from forlorn…
The other night dear, as I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms,
but when I woke dear, I was mistaken,
and I hung my head and cried.
To, frankly, a bit menacing…
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 some day
To downright desperate:
You told me once dear you really loved me
that no one else could come between
but now you’ve left me and love another
you have shattered all my dreams.
One famous (and very un-preschool) version of the song comes courtesy of Ray Charles and his backup group, The Raelettes.
Then there are the song's origins, which are murkier than the waters of a bayou. It was made famous by the country crooner (and later governor of Louisiana, twice) Jimmie Davis. You can hear his version here. Davis first published and copyrighted the song in 1939, but it seems he bought it from others. And who first wrote “You Are My Sunshine” is a topic upon which, let’s just say, there isn’t a lot of sunlight.
But in the end, does it really matter? The song is proof that music, once made, can be shaped into many different forms and meanings. It is one of the joys of the art form. One song can be a source of mystery, heartache, nostalgia, love, tears, and of course, reasons to smile.