By RICHARD SEVERO
Jimmie H. Davis, the troubador and composer of one of
America's best-loved songs, "You Are My Sunshine,"
who yodeled and smiled his way into the hearts of
Louisiana voters to serve two terms as their Singing
Governor, died yesterday at his home in Baton Rouge, La.
Mr. Davis, who also acted in B westerns and taught history
and yodeling at a women's college, was believed to be
about 101 years old.
Various newspaper and magazine articles over the last 70
years said he was born in 1899, 1901, 1902 or 1903. He
told The New York Times several years ago that his
sharecropper parents could never recall just when he was
born — he was, after all, one of 11 children — and that he
had not had the slightest idea when it really was.
Nonetheless, in Baton Rouge on Sept. 10, 1999, more
than 800 Louisianans from across the state's political
spectrum decided he was born in 1899 and decided to
celebrate. Mr. Davis, by then quite frail and using a
wheelchair, his 6-foot-plus frame seeming smaller than
anyone could remember it, heard an outpouring of love for
his music and praise of his tenure as governor, from which
his budget surpluses were more fondly remembered than
his various maneuvers to try to block public school
integration ordered by the United States Supreme Court.
Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards set the tone that day
when he told the audience: "Just imagine: He served two
terms as governor of Louisiana and was never indicted.
That's a genuine achievement."
Many in the crowd remembered the day in 1960 when Mr.
Davis, wearing a white cowboy hat, rode his horse
Sunshine up the steps of the Louisiana Capitol to sing the
praises of his legislative agenda. Few people, either
integrationist or unreconstructed segregationist, held
grudges against Mr. Davis on that day in 1999 for his
ineffectual efforts to preserve segregation in Louisiana.
"Unlike so many Southern governors, Davis managed the
transition so that, however stormy the rhetoric in the
state, there was never any violence or closed schools,"
Kevin Fontenot, a historian at Tulane University, told The
Washington Post in 1999. "He has just never been a
demagogue or a hater."
Not that Mr. Davis was ever totally divorced from the
kinds of activities that had earlier marked the storied
Statehouse tenures of Huey Long, shot dead in 1935, and
his brother, Earl Long, who was committed to a mental
hospital. In the 1960's, during his second term as
governor, Mr. Davis saw to it that the taxpayers of
Louisiana paid for a new Governor's Mansion with 12
bedrooms and 18 bathrooms.
The Legislature approved the million-dollar mansion after
the governor made clear that he would also favor public
works projects that might benefit the legislators' districts.
In addition, as one legislator told a New York Times
reporter, "The governor made it clear that those who
didn't go along with him were through." On another
occasion, journalists learned that members of the
Plainsmen Quartet, who sang with Mr. Davis whenever he
hit the campaign trail, turned up in state jobs as "insurance
rate supervisor" and "inspector" in the Louisiana
Department of Agriculture.
On still another occasion, Mr. Davis vetoed right-to-work
legislation. This outraged his conservative supporters, who
contended that he acted not because he cared about
organized labor, but because he wanted to do a favor for
James C. Petrillo, then head of the musicians' union, who
strongly opposed the legislation. Mr. Davis said there was
no truth to the report that Mr. Petrillo had suggested to
him that if the veto were not forthcoming, Mr. Davis might
not again be able to sing on the radio or in the recording
But there were solid accomplishments, too. In his first
administration, 1944-48, Governor Davis saw to it that
drivers of automobiles were finally licensed. Before that, all
anyone had to do to drive in Louisiana was to turn on the
ignition. Mr. Davis considered the licensing issue so
important that he saw to it that he got the first license
issued by the state.
His second administration did not begin until the early
1960's (he was precluded from immediately succeeding
himself in 1948). He kept taxes down, took steps to
prevent forests from being too rapidly exploited, built
hospitals, repaired and created roads, raised teachers'
salaries and set up the state's first civil service system.
He also signed into law segregation bills that were basically
designed to give local school boards the power to
determine which schools would remain open and which
would be closed in the face of federal orders to admit black
children. In the South in those days, this was all part of the
theory of "interposition," which held that the states could
interpose themselves between federal law and the people
who found that law too much of a burden.
But Governor Davis was never regarded as a hard-core
racist. He had the reputation for instinctively liking
everyone. At the end of the legislative session he would
gather friend and foe alike and lead them in singing his hit
song "It Makes No Difference Now."
A serious public servant, Mr. Davis was equally serious
about show business. He found time to play the singing
sidekick of the cowboy hero Charles Staret in B westerns
in Hollywood, and he showed up with his guitar in Las
Vegas to sing "You Are My Sunshine" and his other songs,
including "Bed Bug Blues," "Bear- Cat Papa" and
James Houston Davis was born in Quitman, in the red hills
of north Louisiana, the son of sharecroppers who were
always in desperate financial straits. As many as 14
Davises lived in a two-room shack, and they all worked
long days in the cotton fields. A friend once asked Jimmie
whether his family had an outhouse and he replied, "No,
we had outwoods."
He said he did not have a bed to sleep in until he was 9.
When his younger sister died because the family could not
afford medical care, Jimmie helped his father build her
coffin out of wood they found. Later in his life he built the
Jimmie Davis Tabernacle, a nondenominational chapel, on
a highway south of his birthplace.
Mr. Davis's father told his children that education was
important, that they ought to get as much of it as they
could, because if they learned something, it might be a
way out of the poverty they all knew so well.
Mr. Davis took the advice to heart. After graduating in a
class of three from the Beech Springs Consolidated School,
he attended high school in Winnfield, Huey Long's
hometown, then went to New Orleans to attend a
business school. Mr. Davis regarded himself as "a shouting
Baptist" and so he entered Louisiana College, a Baptist
institution in Pineville, going on to earn a master's degree
from Louisiana State University.
He taught briefly in a public school, then, in 1927, joined
the faculty of Dodd College, a women's college in
Shreveport, where he officially taught history and
unofficially taught the finer points of yodeling. He feared
yodeling was fading in American music, and felt he ought
to try to save it.
He remained at Dodd a year before taking a job as court
clerk in Shreveport, where he remained for most of the
1930's, becoming as interested in pursuing a life of public
service as he was in his music.
Mr. Davis began to write his own songs in the mid-1930's.
He could not read or write music, and he had no formal
knowledge of chord structure. But he could pick out tunes
on the guitar he taught himself to play. A talent scout from
RCA Victor Records heard him singing on Shreveport's
radio station KWKH and asked him whether he would like
to record, then paid his way to Memphis, where he made
He attracted attention with songs like "Nobody's Darling
But Mine" and "It Makes No Difference Now." Mr. Davis's
own renditions sold well, and Bing Crosby, Gene Autry,
Guy Lombardo and the Andrews Sisters were attracted to
In the mid-1930's he married Alverna Adams, a member
of an old Shreveport family. Miss Adams was a cultured
woman who played classical music on the piano, and she
began to help him put his music down on paper.
"I try out a song on my wife," Mr. Davis joked, "and if she
doesn't like it, I rush right out and record it."
While his musical career was growing, he continued to
explore the possibilities of public office. In 1938 he became
Shreveport's commissioner of public safety, the top job in
the city's fire and police departments. He got the job by
campaigning for it with his guitar and a small singing group.
After he got the job, he never tired of telling schoolchildren
not to jaywalk. He would sing them "Roundup Time in
Heaven," a song he had written, inspired by his desire not
to see them hit by cars.
On Feb. 4, 1940, he recorded a song he had only recently
completed, called "You Are My Sunshine." It became a big
hit. Mr. Davis's recording was immensely popular and so
were recordings of the song by Bing Crosby and Gene
Autry. King George VI of England heard the song and
immediately declared it was his favorite.
Over the next 60 years "You Are My Sunshine" was
recorded by more than 350 artists. It sold millions of
records and was translated into 30 languages. It is easily
one of the world's most recognizable songs. Nearly
everyone remembers singing:
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.
In 1942, Mr. Davis became public service commissioner,
the same job that Huey Long had once held. Two years
later, he decided to run for governor, much to the dismay
of the remnants of the Long machine, who were trying to
hold on to the power they had accumulated 20 years
earlier. During the campaign, if anybody asked Mr. Davis
where he stood on a particularly contentious issue, he
would sing one of his songs.
"It's better in a political campaign to give folks very little
talking and a whole lot of songs," he said.
When one of his rivals suggested that if elected governor,
Mr. Davis would prove fickle and accept an offer to go to
Hollywood and make movies, he passed the accusation on
to a crowd at a rally and admitted he probably would "up
and go" to Hollywood, if he got a serious offer.
"So would we, Jimmie!" the crowd roared back, pleading
with him to stop the chatter and sing "You Are My
Sunshine" one more time. Mr. Davis obliged them. He
always referred to singing on the campaign trail as
"shucking the corn."
He had written a tune called "Honky Tonk Blues," and one
of his rivals started calling him "Honky Tonk Jim." Louisiana
voters responded by singing the song. In those days, you
could hear them singing it all over New Orleans and Baton
Rouge. During the 1950's, he continued writing music,
some of it inspirational, some of it more earthbound,
including "Supper Time," "Honey in the Rock," "Take My
Hand," "Shackles and Chains" and "Columbus Stockade
Blues." He became interested in the music of Louisiana's
Cajun country and was widely known for his rendition of
"Colinda." He is credited with writing hundreds of songs
and recording several dozen albums.
After Mr. Davis's first term, he continued to concentrate on
his music and on his business interests in Shreveport. By
then, his music had made him rich. He knew a lot about
farming and bought 450 acres of good land near
Shreveport. He called that farm his insurance policy. "When
a man's in the business I'm in, things may blow up
overnight," he said.
In 1959, he decided to run for governor again but by then,
the South was in great pain over the federal initiatives to
desegregate. The segregationists backed William Rainach,
and the moderates looked to Mayor deLesseps Morrison
of New Orleans. When it became clear that Louisiana
would not support Mr. Rainach, the segregationists backed
Mr. Davis and he became governor again.
After his second term, Mr. Davis's admirers were
disappointed when in 1968 Gov. John J. McKeithen vetoed
a bill that would have made "You Are My Sunshine"
Louisiana's official song. The ostensible reason was that
the song, although sweet and dear to millions, said not a
word about Louisiana.
Also in 1968, a year after his wife Alverna died, Mr. Davis
married Anna Gordon, another country singer. In addition
to his wife, Mr. Davis is survived by a son, James.
In 1971, Mr. Davis tried half-heartedly to win a third term
as governor, but ran fourth. Six years later the Legislature
decreed that "You Are My Sunshine" would share honors
as state song with "Give Me Louisiana," by Doralice
Fontane, which mentions Louisiana repeatedly.
Asked late in life how he wanted to be remembered, Mr.
Davis replied, as "someone who scattered a little sunshine
along his path."