I happen to be in New Orleans as we enter the final days of America's "midterm" election season. So, on the eve of whatever blue or red wave comes washing in on Tuesday, it seems fitting to offer a political Song of the Week. Yet it's striking how few songs there are about electoral politics. The best known couplet on the subject may well be from Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues":
Well, I told my Congressman and he said, quote
'I'd like to help you, son, but you're too young to vote.'
Alice Cooper wrote a number called "Elected", and despite a very dreary tune it's rhymed unusually punctiliously for a rock song:
I'm your top prime cut of meat, I'm your choice
I wanna be Elected
I'm your Yankee Doodle Dandy in a gold Rolls-Royce
I wanna be Elected...
But, on the whole, politics in pop means "You say you want a revolution" and songs promising similarly sweeping change above and beyond the ballot box – "Blowin' In The Wind", "Something In The Air", etc. So, instead, I thought I'd pick a campaign song. But the best of those, by George and Ira Gershwin, was written for a fictitious candidate, John P Wintergreen, in their satirical operetta Of Thee I Sing (1931) and an early example of identity politics set to music:
Wintergreen For President!
Wintergreen For President!
He's the man the people choose
Loves the Irish and the Jews.
That's it, that's the whole song, enthusiastically sung by Wintergreen supporters waving placards bearing such winning slogans as "A VOTE FOR WINTERGREEN IS A VOTE FOR WINTERGREEN!"
In the sequel, Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933), John P Wintergreen runs for re-election and is defeated by John P Tweedledee, with his own stirring campaign theme:
He's the man the country seeks!
Loves the Turks and the Greeks!
Ira Gershwin was much better at spoof campaign songs than the real thing. In the 1950s, he reworked "It Ain't Necessarily So" for Adlai Stevenson, beginning with a line of exquisite limousine-liberal condescension:
L'il Nixon was small, but oh, my...
It's funny how hard it is to find anything to sing about. When you look back at the specially commissioned theme songs – "Teddy, Come Back", "Wilson – That's All", "Franklin D Roosevelt's Back Again", "Nixon's The One" – you realize it wouldn't have made any difference if they'd been "Wilson's The One", "Theodore Roosevelt's Back Again", "Franklin – That's All", and "Nixon, Come Back".
But the pickings get a little richer when it comes to songwriting politicians. Retiring senator Orrin Hatch writes songs incessantly, of course, though his love theme for Teddy Kennedy is pretty much the perfect summation of what's wrong with the Senate Republicans. A century before Orrin, New York City Mayor James J Walker had a huge hit in 1905 with "Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May?" But the absolutely biggest musical success by any American politician was born in the state I chance to be in this weekend, Louisiana, and was for decades the blockbuster theme song of the two-time governor and longtime powerhouse of this state, Jimmie Davis:
You Are My Sunshine
My only sunshine...
Viewed from today, Governor Davis is an almost absurd accumulation of southern clichés: sharecropper, country-&-western singer, segregationist Democrat. But he was a powerful figure in Louisiana for a good half of his hundred-plus years, and "You Are My Sunshine" was usually the music that accompanied him to the podium, both as entertainer and politician. He was born in 1899 on a farm in the northern part of the state, in Beech Springs. It's now a ghost town, and wasn't much more of a going proposition back then, when Jimmie was the eldest of eleven children growing up in a family home with two rooms. "The first Christmas present I ever got," he remembered, "was a dried hog's bladder and a plucked blackbird. We ate the blackbird and played ball with the bladder, and I thought we were pretty well off." He was almost thirty before he landed a contract with Doggone Records. His hero in those days was "The Singing Brakeman", Jimmie Rodgers, America's Blues Yodeler. Jimmie Davis was more of a Blue Yodeler. The songs he wrote had a somewhat narrow preoccupation, rendered in double entendres that were barely double at all – "Red Nightgown Blues", "Pistol Packin' Poppa", "Organ Grinder Blues", "Get On Board Aunt Susan", "She's A Hum Dum Dinger" and "Tom Cat And Pussy Blues": according to the critic John Morthland, it was "the dirtiest batch of songs any one person had ever recorded in country music". When Davis eventually ran for Governor, his opponents attempted to exploit these early songs of "unbridled carnality". At one rally, a rival politician played them to the crowd only to find that, instead of being outraged, folks began to dance.
But "You Are My Sunshine" was an even bigger crowd-pleaser. It's really only eight lines, but they're very affecting when set to those notes:
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.
"You Are My Sunshine" is not yet eight decades old and the man who wrote it died in 2000, but it has the quality of a "traditional" song. In the Sixties, a lot of fellows strained for that effect when brand-new "folk" songs were in vogue, but it's not so easy writing instant "folk" songs when you're a long way from the cotton fields. I once spoke to a Vegas pal of Bobby Darin's, who gave an hilarious account of Darin, coming out of his finger-snappy tuxedo phase, and re-writing and re-re-writing his "folk anthem" "A Simple Song Of Freedom" because he was having terrible difficulty getting it to sound sufficiently simple. "You Are My Sunshine" doesn't have any problems in that department. Even the verses' avoidance of rhyme gives them a strange vernacular quality:
The other night, dear
As I lay sleeping
I dreamed I held you in my arms.
When I awoke, dear
I was mistaken
And I hung my head and cried...
Where did it come from? Jimmie Davis could never quite explain. He wasn't thinking of this or that girl, he'd say. Maybe it was two or three he hand in mind. According to some musical archaeologists, it began life as an anonymous poem that wound up being sung by the Pine Ridge Boys, then covered by the Rice Brothers' Gang, with the music credited to Paul Rice, who sold it to Davis, and Davis gave his steel guitarist Charles Mitchell co-authorship of the song. It's true there's nothing like it in the rest of the Governor's catalogue, but it would not have been beyond the range of the man who wrote "Tom Cat And Pussy Blues". Davis' 1940 recording was the smash of his career and the song figured prominently when he ran for governor in 1944. A lot of the band wound up on the state payroll, and Davis can claim to be the only governor in American history to have a Number One hit record - no, not "You Are My Sunshine" but "There's a New Moon Over My Shoulder", which hit the top in the first year of his first term.
Louisiana forbids governors from serving consecutive terms, but in 1960 Davis was back, again with "You Are My Sunshine" as his theme song. He tried again in the Seventies and, though it didn't work out this time, the political class in the state thought enough of him to make "Sunshine" a Louisiana state song, complete with state-song-type lyrics:
Louisiana, my Louisiana
The place where I was born
White fields of cotton
Green fields clover
The best fishing
And long tall corn
You Are My Sunshine...
Crawfish gumbo and jambalaya
The biggest shrimp and sugar cane
The finest oysters
And sweet strawberries
From Toledo Bend
To New Orleans...
You Are My Sunshine...
I'll stick with the original.
~Mark tells the story of many beloved songs - from "Auld Lang Syne" to "White Christmas" via "My Funny Valentine", "Easter Parade" and "Autumn Leaves"- in his book A Song For The Season. Personally autographed copies are exclusively available from the Steyn store - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter the promo code at checkout to enjoy special Steyn Club member pricing.