It could be the most recognized American song worldwide. Go to a small Asian community were little or no English is spoken. Then start humming “You Are My Sunshine.” More likely than not, the locals will join in singing along. Everyone knows the words to a down home tune written by a Louisiana country singer and movie star. And he was sworn in as Louisiana Governor seventy years ago this week.
Jimmy Davis was a popular country singer in the 1930s, and made a number of western movies including the likes of Cyclone Prairie Rangers, Mississippi Rhythm and Square Dance Katy. But throughout the world, he made his mark with “Sunshine.”
I was in Cambodia a few years back right at the Golden Triangle where Burma and Thailand converge. Breakfast at a rural village outdoor cafe’ with dirt floors, and a young waitress who knew as few words in English. “You American. I love America. I sing about America.” Then, with a big grim on her face, she broke out in song and danced around the dirt floor singing “You Are My Sunshine.”
After serving two terms as Louisiana Governor, Davis spent a lot of time at his farm in Northeast Louisiana, traveling back and forth from the state capitol in Baton Rouge. The Governor was friends with my senior law partner in Ferriday, and made it a habit of stopping by our office for a coffee break. I was a wet, behind the ears 26-year-old attorney, and often the only one in the office. So Jimmy Davis would talk at length about his life and gave me my initial political education.
He would often ask me to notarize some document, which I was glad to do. “So what do I owe you Brother Brown?” he would ask. I would settle for a few verses of “Sunshine.” He regularly inquired if I could find him a raccoon. Up in redneck country, we just call it a coon. His favorite meal was to cook up a coon stew. Knowing the request would always come from him, I asked some local hunters I represented to drop off a raccoon if they could fine one in their hunting escapades. I generally kept a raccoon or two in the office freezer.
Now I know I have wetted your appetite for a delicious palate of raccoon. When I was elected some years later as Secretary of State, I wrote a cookbook, and the Governor graciously shared one of his favorite coon recipes for me to include. Now here is good news for you. The same recipe applies to a possum. Well I know you are glad to know that. So here’s the Governor’s favorite dish.
Skin and clean coon. Remove musks that are located under each foreleg and four in the neck. Rub coon with red pepper, sprinkle with sat, add one sliced onion and five pods of minced garlic. Parboil until tender. Place coon in baking dish with three tablespoon’s of melted oleo and the broth in which the coon was boiled. Place quartered sweet potatoes around the coon and bake at 375 degrees until golden brown. There you go. Can’t beat that for taste, can you?
Davis made one last futile effort for a third term as governor in 1971, while I made my foray in politics running for state senator. He often campaigned with his band in the district where I was running, and I would put up signs that read: “Come to the Jim Brown for Senator campaign rally. Special guest-Governor Jimmy Davis.” Davis laughed when he caught on to what I was doing, and would call me up on the platform to introduce me as the district’s next state senator. He supported me every time I ran for public office after that.
Throughout my 28-year political career, Jimmy Davis would often come by my Baton Rouge office, or call me to come visit him at his home right by the state capitol. I always knew when he needed a notary. My last call was a few weeks before he died in 2000. He was donating a piece of property and needed the deed signed, but he insisted he pay me something. “OK Governor,” I told him. “When you pass on, I want you to give me your driver’s license number.” You see, Davis instituted the license requirement during his first term as governor in 1944. And the number on his license? Number one. “A done deal,” he told me.
Of course, I never actually got it. But it was good way to end our 35-year relationship with a smile. And Sunshine? Who was she? A past lover? A devoted family member? No. Sunshine was Jimmy Davis’s horse. The palomino mare is buried up on the northeast Louisiana farm. I pass that way occasionally, and remember back on my many conversations with the Governor. And yes. I do hum a few bars of “You always Are My Sunshine.”