You are my sunshine: The recorded lineage of an American folk song

Ryan Raul Banagale


Just about everyone knows the song You Are My Sunshine in one form or another. For many it was first heard during childhood as a lullaby or campfire sing-along. Beyond such oral transmission, this song's presence is also maintained in our culture through recorded form. With a release rate of more than five new recordings per year, artists have created their own renditions ranging from folk to funk to reggae to punk. Of these, Jimmie Davis sold a million copies of the song as a country record, Bing Crosby took his recording to $20 on the country charts, and Ray Charles hit #1 on the R&B charts. The various recordings of You Are My Sunshine demonstrate not only the commercial viability of the song, but also its widespread appeal to both artists and their listeners regardless of racial, sociological, or geographic background.

What is it about You Are My Sunshine that allows it to successfully navigate such diverse musical paths? The answer lies in the compositional makeup of its diverse and little acknowledged origins. Starting with its supposed composition in the 1940s and working backwards, this paper examines a series of songs that form a recorded pedigree for You Are My Sunshine. Each song contributes musical components, or moments, from various folk traditions to what becomes the standard (and copyrighted) version of You Are My Sunshine. This paper will then demonstrate how the accentuation of different key musical moments allows an artist to create a popular version of You Are My Sunshine through the examination of Ray Charles’s charting rendition.

© Musicological Explorations, School of Music, University of Victoria

ISSN 1711-9235