Sing It Good, Sing It Strong, Sing It Loud: The Music of Governor Jimmie Davis
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46 Sing It Good, Sing It Strong, Sing It Loud The Music of Governor Jimmie Davis —Kevin Fontenot Nineteen twenty-eight marks the recording debut of Jimmie Davis, perhaps best known as Louisiana’s “Singing Governor” or the man who collected royalties for “You Are My Sunshine” (though, most likely, he did not actually compose it). Davis made his name on the national political scene as the state’s two-term governor and as a recording artist who made hundreds of commercial records mostly between the late 1920s and the early 1950s. His professional musical career began in Shreveport, after he gravitated to the city from his birthplace (September 11, 1899) near Beech Springs, Louisiana, on the southeastern edge of the Ark-La-Tex region. His first recordings were custom made at KWKH and issued on a W. K. Henderson-sponsored label, Doggone Records. Two years later, however, the recordings he made for RCA Victor launched a music career that lasted more than six decades. Much of Davis’s recorded output reflects the mutual influence of black and white musical life in Shreveport, even during a time of harsh race-based legal segregation. Likewise, the attention paid to Davis by RCA Victor underscores the unequal access to professional opportunities afforded white musicians over black musicians. Although Davis’s custom recordings on the Doggone label (“Ramona,” “You’d Rather Forget Than Forgive,”“Think of Me Thinking of You” and “Way Out on the Mountain”) give no hint at his understanding of black music, Davis’s 1930–31 Victor recordings clearly demonstrate his affinity for the African American blues tradition. Songs such as “She’s a Hum Dum Dinger from Dingersville,”“Midnight Blues,” and “Pea Pickin’ Papa” place Davis in the same yodeling blues-influenced basket as country music icons Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. Like Rodgers, who recorded with both Louis Armstrong and members of a Louisville-based Jug Band, Davis brought in two THE MUSIC OF GOVERNOR JIMMIE DAVIS 47 local black musicians—guitarists Oscar “Buddy”Woods and Ed Schaffer—on a handful of these bluesy and salacious recordings. Both Woods and Schaffer made commercial records as well, and Woods was documented by the Library of Congress several years later. (For more about these black musicians, please see Paul Oliver’s piece in the “Blues” section of this book.) As this article makes clear, Davis loved both music and politics. Fontenot breaks down his musical career into three sections and also explores the delicate question of the authorship of “You Are My Sunshine.” Although this is an article about music, the author also briefly describes Davis’s political career and his status as a much admired and recorded southern gospel artist in the three decades before his death in 2000. James Houston Davis is one of Louisiana’s most important contributors to the field of country music and, along with artists like Louis Armstrong, to American popular music in general. Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, Davis registered hit after hit on the “hillbilly” charts and saw several of his compositions cross onto the popular charts as well. His songs, including “Nobody’s Darling But Mine” and “You Are My Sunshine,” became hits for artists as diverse as Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, and Satchmo himself. Davis has been honored with induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Judging by some of the inductees, including Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Leadbelly, he also deserves induction into the “pioneers” wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite his importance, Davis has yet to garner great attention from the scholarly community. Perhaps this lack of concern is due to Davis’s political career, which some find objectionable, or to the fact that folk music scholars find little appealing in an artist who actually made money rather than suffered abuse by the industry. Davis, for his part, only reluctantly granted interviews to researchers whose interest extended beyond the usual journalistic foray. More to the point, Davis’s career was so lengthy, his catalog so large, and his music so diverse that the task seems daunting. The existing scholarship on Davis easily breaks down into three categories . First, several scholars have written broad general discussions of Davis’s life and music. Usually these studies make little effort to connect his career to the larger trends in country music history, and are...


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