“You Are My Sunshine” is one of the most useful songs you can play on ukulele.

It’s a children’s song, and it’s also very popular with the older generation.  It’s easy enough for beginners to play. Everyone knows the chorus.

And it has an interesting backstory.

“You Are My Sunshine” has been described as “the ultimate crossover song”. 

Salon.com calls it “a lament, a lullaby and a singalong” all in one.

At the dementia care facility where my mother, Sue, lived for four years, many residents knew all the words to all four verses, when they couldn’t remember what day it was. Here’s my post Songs To Remember, about making music with my mother and the other people in the dementia unit.

Even though my mother knew “You Are My Sunshine” well, it wasn’t part of my childhood. (See later in this post for my theory about this.)

“You Are My Sunshine” is often called “heartwarming”, but a close look at the lyrics after the first verse shows that they’re better described as “heartbreaking”.  It’s about unrequited love.

This song has enjoyed enduring popularity for nine decades.

It’s one of the most frequently recorded songs in American popular music.

It’s been covered by Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin and many others. According to Salon.com, Ray’s is the most exciting “adult” version.

New Zealand musician Anika Moa sings a great version of “You Are My Sunshine” with customized lyrics on her kids’ album, Songs for Bubbas.

The first time I noticed “You Are My Sunshine” was in the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou? It’s a charming tragicomedy starring George Clooney and Holly Hunter.

Clooney’s character has a music group called the Soggy Bottom Boys, who sing “You Are My Sunshine” on a radio show, while on the run from the law.

“You Are My Sunshine” was written in the 1930s, but there are various accounts about who wrote it.

Paul Rice copyrighted the song in 1937. However, the family of musician Oliver Hood, a colleague of Rice’s, have claimed that Hood actually wrote the song.

In 1939 Rice sold the rights to the song to Charlie Mitchell and Jimmie Davis (a common practice in the music business of that era). 

Jimmie Davis was a well-known country singer and politician. He recorded “You Are My Sunshine” in 1940, and the song propelled him to elected office in 1944 and again in 1960. He used it as his campaign theme, often singing it while riding a horse called Sunshine.

In 1960 Jimmie Davis was elected Louisiana governor on a segregationist ticket.

I think that might be why my American-born mother, Sue, didn’t sing “You Are My Sunshine” to her kids. In the USA in the early 1960s it was strongly linked to a white segregationist politician.

However, it wasn’t exactly an anti-civil rights anthem – Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and other black American singers also recorded it.

That’s water under the bridge in the 21st century. One song doesn’t have to be forever connected with a particular political movement. For another example, “Ode To Joy” was claimed by the Nazis, but it’s also the anthem of the modern European Union.

I’ve enjoyed playing “You Are My Sunshine” in all kinds of places, and I’m sure you will too.

Here’s Richard G.’s ukulele chord chart for “You Are My Sunshine“.

And here’s a link to my Youtube video showing how to play “You Are My Sunshine”.


Hi, I’m Alice

I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.

I teach ukulele to adult learners all over the world via Zoom and Skype. If you happen to live in Hamilton, New Zealand, I also teach group ukulele classes.

You can find out about my group classes by clicking here.

Click this link to book online ukulele lessons with me. $US160 for six half-hour lessons.

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Photographed by Brooke Baker

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