You Are My Sunshine is one of the most well-known songs in American history.
Many know it as a children’s folk song, often sung in schoolyards or at a campfire. Some know it as a way to sing away the blues in times of great stress.
But how many people know where the song comes from or who wrote it?
We were curious, and we thought you might be too.
Let’s see what we found!
Who Originally Wrote You Are My Sunshine?
The origin story of You Are My Sunshine is a little muddy. We know it was written in America in the 1930s. We know who owns the rights to the song. But the remaining facts are up for debate.
We’ll start with what we know.
You Are My Sunshine was recorded and copyrighted by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell in 1940. Davis was a teacher, and politician turned singer during the Depression.
He recorded over 50 singles from 1929 to 1933 under the Victor record label. His career as a rural country music singer took off after signing with Decca in 1934.
Davis purchased the composer credit from several musicians. This was a common and acceptable practice during the 30s.
According to a news article in the Shreveport Times, David bought the rights to You Are My Sunshine from Paul Rice in 1939 for $35. Rice needed the money to pay for his wife’s hospital bills.
So, who is Paul Rice?
The Rice Brothers’ Gang
Paul and Hoke Rice grew up near Atlanta and inherited their musical talent from their mother. They toured the American radio circuit in the early 30s as a duo called The Rice Brothers.
After becoming a five-piece in 1937, they rebranded themselves as The Rice brother’s Gang. They were highly successful, toured a lot, and played with several musicians.
The Rice Brothers’ Gang recorded You Are My Sunshine on September 13, 1939. But they didn’t include a writing credit on the album.
According to Paul Rice, he wrote the song in 1937, inspired by a love letter sent to him. Rice says a woman from South Carolina wrote him a 17-page letter, claiming he was her sunshine.
But wait, there’s more!
Who is Oliver Hood?
Oliver Hood was a music teacher and performer from LaGrange, Georgia. He was a part of a generation of folks who sang and played music for the love of it, not the money. According to Hood’s family, Oliver performed with musicians such as Paul Rice and Riley Puckett in the early 30s.
Musicians from far and wide would come to his house on a Sunday to play and jam together. Sometimes they would record, and sometimes just while the night away with beautiful sound.
Hood’s family says Oliver wrote You Are My Sunshine in 1933 and sang it live many times since. He wrote the lyrics down on a brown paper sack, which they still have.
Oliver wrote a reclaiming song called Someone Stole My Sunshine Away in 1957. But as he was so put off by the music industry, the song was never recorded nor published.
Who First Recorded You Are My Sunshine?
The fourth group to lay claim to You Are My Sunshine is The Pine Ridge Boys. Originally from Atlanta, Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey were the first to record the song on August 22, 1939. Their version of You Are My Sunshine came out on October 6 of the same year.
Doug Spivey’s origin story behind the song is similar to Paul Rice’s. According to Spivey, they got the tune from a young guitar player from South Carolina. She told Spivey to take the song and copyright it.
His recollection was foggy from all touring, radio performances, and travel. Records state that this young woman also told Spivey that she got You Are My Sunshine from “some fellow there.”
Did the young Southern gal get the song from Oliver Hood? We’ll never know for sure.
The Pine Ridge Boys played in the same country music circuits as the Rice Brothers and Jimmie Davis. In those days, musicians became known by playing live on the radio. Brotherly duets were fashionable and well received.
Although The Pine Ridge Boys were not brothers, they were presented so by their producer Pop Eckler. Eckler brought Spivey and Taylor together after recognizing their talent and musical similarities.
Both were yodeling singers and fiddlin’ guitarists from the South. Both performed at WSB Radio, Atlanta’s pioneering country radio station. Their harmonies became immensely popular, and before long, they were one of the most well-known country duets of the 1930s.
The Pine Ridge Boys released several singles in the 1930s and 40s. They’re most well known for the singles Convict & The Rose, Farther Along, and I Won’t Care. Their legend lives on longest amongst the memories of country jamborees like Cross Road Follies and the WSB Bard Dance.
What’s the Most Popular Cover of You Are My Sunshine?
Gene Autry’s cover of You Are My Sunshine is the most well-known version of the song.
His cover debuted in the film Back In The Saddle Again, released March 14, 1941. The movie was a western about a modern cowboy, Gene, and his fight against big business and corruption.
Autry was a huge star and a revered country singer by then. When the song was recorded and released four months later, it went straight to the top.
Autry’s version of You Are My Sunshine is upbeat and bright. It’s just Autry, his guitar, and a subtle violin backing the melody. The director used the song as a light, comedic moment between darker themes in the movie.
By popular demand, Gene Autry re-recorded the song as a single after the film’s release. Autry’s cover of You Are My Sunshine was #1 on the US Hillbilly charts and remained there for 20 weeks. It reached #23 on the Billboard Pop charts in the fall of 1941.
What Other Great Covers Are Out There?
You Are My Sunshine has been covered by hundreds of artists. The version recorded by Jimmie Davis received numerous awards. The National Endowment of The Arts has named it one of the top songs of the century. Here are a few great renditions.
Topping our list is Ray Charles’ cover of You Are My Sunshine in 1962. It’s featured on his album Modern Sounds in Country Western Music Volume 2. And it’s totally modern! Charles brings the coolest of the cool 60’s vibes to this country classic.
The song tempo is entirely different, featuring backup singers Marie Hendrix and The Raelettes. Ray Charles knocks this one out of the park with his signature piano sound and horn section.
Next up is the cover of You Are My Sunshine by Johnny Cash. His version made its debut as part of a five-CD box set called Unearthed, released two months after Cash’s death in 2003.
Cash worked with producer Rick Rubin for over a decade, recording dozens of covers of classics plus alternative hit songs. This version of You Are My Sunshine is particularly moving in its simplicity. The frailty in Cash’s voice makes the impact of the lyrics all the more tender.
Our third pick is the cover by the Australian Country duo Bill & Audrey. Bill Chambers and Audrey Auld are country music singers who collaborated on the album Looking Back to See in 1999. Upon its release, the album won accolades from Billboard and The Journal of Country Music.
Their cover of You Are My Sunshine is fast and fun. It features that classic fiddle and guitar twang of the 50s, with a bit of a polish of today. You might be happily surprised to hear how ‘country’ two Aussies from down under can sound.
A Gift with a Troubled History
You Are My Sunshine is such a beloved, simple song. After some reflection, it might make sense that its origins aren’t clear. It was written during a challenging time in American history: the dust bowl years and the Great Depression. People needed something light but relevant to the times. We hope that whoever truly created it is at peace with the gift they gave the world.