Obituary: Jimmie Davis

Louisiana's singing governor who may have penned a world hit

Jimmie Davis, who has died at the reputed age of 101, stood largely alone in the murky world of Louisiana politics. The apparent author of one of the world's best known songs, You Are My Sunshine, he twice served as state governor. At last year's celebration of his 100th birthday, one of his successors, Edwin Edwards - who spent most of his final term on trial for corruption - paid an awed tribute. "Just imagine," he said, "Jimmie served two terms as governor and was never indicted. That's a genuine achievement." It was also a pretty close-run thing.

Yet, in the appalling political culture established by the Long family, Davis's legislative record was surprisingly benign. In a state still described as "America's banana republic", suffering some of the country's highest cancer, Aids and premature death rates, he introduced free school milk, accelerated hospital building, special care for the mentally ill and 6,000 miles of new roads.

Davis claimed, at different times, to have been born in any year from 1899 to 1902. As sharecroppers in north Louisiana's cottonfields, his parents jammed 12 children into a two-roomed shack, and remained uncertain of the order of their birth. Davis said he had never slept in a bed until he was nine, and recalled a Christmas gift the children once received - a skinned blackbird and a dried pig's bladder. "We ate the bird, and played ball with the bladder. I've never been happier with anything I've had since."

Davis studied hard, at primary school, high school, and Louisiana College, graduating in education. After a year teaching at his old primary school, he enrolled at Louisiana state university for a master's degree. Throughout this period, he also pursued his musical career.

In 1929, he became clerk to Shreveport city court. Huey Long had just become governor of Louisiana, exerting his demagogic power and offering his share-the-wealth policy of social services and vast public works - which were mostly a mechanism to siphon off huge sums for himself. For 10 years, Davis quietly consolidated his own political career, combining it with increasing popularity as a singer. In 1938, he won his first election, becoming commissioner of public safety for Shreveport - controlling the police and fire services.

He soon moved to the state public service commission, a body at the heart of the Long family's financial shenanigans. From this key position, he emerged as the likeliest figure to unite the state's bitterly feuding political factions, the Long family and those they had ousted from their lucrative state pickings.

In 1944, with most of America's attention fixed on the second world war, Davis launched one of the most eccentric gubernatorial campaigns in US history. Relying on his musical reputation, he took his band across the state, concentrating primarily on giving the crowds a good time - and romped into the governor's mansion.

One of his first acts was to introduce driving licences to a population which had never thought them necessary. Though he successfully advanced the social measures being advocated nationally by his old ally President Truman, he was criticised for frequent absences from the office, not least to star in a 1947 Hollywood film about his own life.

Unable, under state law, to succeed himself, he concentrated throughout the 1950s on a musical career. But in 1960, with the explosive issue of desegregation filling the political horizon, he was again elected governor as a compromise candidate.

Davis then seemed to act as just another redneck bigot, calling five special sessions of the state legislature to combat federal desegregation orders, and eventually seeing this rearguard campaign struck down by the US supreme court. He later justified his actions on the grounds that they offered the least bad option. "Everybody ran on the segregation ticket. You couldn't be elected without it. When desegregation came, we did it without having anybody killed. We didn't even have a fist-fight".

His first wife died in 1968. He is survived by his second wife, Anna, and a son.

Tony Russell writes: Jimmie Davis always maintained that You Are My Sunshine was his bright idea. When reminded that other artists had recorded the song before him, he invented even earlier sessions at which, he claimed, he had recorded it, but, unsatisfied, vetoed its release.

The truth seems to be that Davis bought the song for $35 from a musician who needed to pay his wife's hospital bills. Its brilliance all but conceals a period when Davis specialised in suggestive songs like Jelly Roll Blues and Tom Cat And Pussy Blues.

He began singing in quartets at college, and in 1927-28 had a radio programme on station KWKH in Shreveport. His first records were sentimental cowboy songs, then came raunchy narrative blues, such as She's A Hum Dum Dinger From Dingersville or Bear Cat Mama From Horners Corners, decorated with mellifluous yodelling in the style of the contemporary country singer, Jimmie Rodgers.

Davis sang blues, and associated with blues people; unusually for the period, he was accompanied on record by African-Americans, the guitarists Ed Schaffer and Oscar Woods. In 1934, he recorded the wheedling love song Nobody's Darlin' But Mine. A crossover hit before the term was coined, it was covered by Bing Crosby and in Britain by Ambrose's orchestra.

Thereafter, Davis turned his back on the blues, but did not sever his low-life connections. As commissioner for public safety, he put his bandleader and other musicians on the local payroll and, many contemporaries believe, used his position as police chief to drop charges against arrested musicians if they signed over the rights to their songs.

Certainly, the catalogue of songs credited, or part-credited, to Davis includes many to which his claim is legal rather than authorial. The country singer Floyd Tillman, half of whose income from his song, It Makes No Difference Now, went into Davis's pocket, told me with a contemptuous sniff: "Jimmie Davis never wrote a song in his life."

Until the early 1940s, Davis was a country music star of almost Gene Autry magnitude. After his first term as governor, he stopped playing in dance halls but continued to broadcast and record, now leaning towards gospel music. He sang from the stump in subsequent campaigns, but, when it failed to work in 1972, quit politics and devoted himself to his extensive publishing interests.

Jimmie Houston Davis, musician and politician, born September 11 1899; died November 5 2000


Harold Jackson

The GuardianTramp

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