Country music has never been shirked in the pages of Chronicles, as any faithful reader knows. John Reed's June column concerning the Far East's facination with country music, however, left out one pertinent mention: the story of Toru Mitsui.
Mr. Mitsui is a fifty-year-old professor of English at Kanazawa University; he is also Japan's formost scholar on country music. In 1967 he wrote what some have called the first scholarly study of bluegrass, Burugurasu Ongaku (Bluegrass Music), and his 1971 Kantori Ongaku no Rekishi (A History of Country Music), twice reprinted, is the Japanese equivalent of Bill Malone's standard, Country Music U.S.A. He has even compiled an eleven-album set of re-recordings of "hillbilly artists" for Japanese Victor, which include songs by Tex Ritter, The Carter Family, and the Sons of the Pioneers, as well as rare recordings by such performers as Riley Puckett, the blind virtuoso of the banjo who is credited with the first recording of Yodeling. Mr. Mitsui has also traveled widely in the United States, principally for the reasons of general research. His 1989 visit however, had a specific purpose. He sought the origin and author of America's most famous folk song, the one George Jones once called the most perfect song ever written, the one widely considered to be the third best-known song (right after "Happy Birthday" and "White Christmas") in the world: "You Are My Sunshine."
Mr. Mitsui first went to the office of Georgia State University professor Wayne Daniel, who has long researched the history of American country music. Professor Daniel concluded in a 1984 article that the origin of the song would never be ascertained, a conclusion he repeats in his latest book, Pickin' on Peachtree: A history of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia (University of Illinois Press, 1990): "So like some of the words ascribed to Shakespeare, the authorship of 'You Are My Sunshine' will probably never be decided to everyone's satisfaction."
A familiar story of the song's origin goes like this. The song was first recorded by the Pine Ridge Boys on August 22, 1939; the Rice Brothers Gang recorded it on September 13, 1939; country music star and former Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, along with one Charlie Mitchell, bought the "rights" to the song from Paul Rice for $35 in late 1939; Jimmie Davis published it, with "words and music by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell," with the Southern Music Publishing Company of New York on January 30, 1940, and recorded it on February 5, that being the recording most country music fans remember and the one that placed the song among the top five country music recordings of that year. Gene Autry and Bing Crosby then made separate recordings of the song in 1941, solidifying its status as an American Classic. According to Professor Daniel, neither the Pyne Ridge Boys nor Jimmie Davis ever claimed to have written "You Are My Sunshine," but not so with Paul Rice; he claimed to have composed it in 1937.
There are still people alive, however, who remember hearing the song long before 1937 - in particular, a mid 1930's performance of the song by Riley Puckett himself - and what these people remember is the name of the musician with whom both Riley Puckett and Paul Rice played in the early 1930's: Oliver Hood of LaGrange, Georgia.
Oliver Hood was a soft-spoken, self taught man of simple pleasures and simple needs. He worked for decades as a doffer in the local cotton mill before becoming a full-time music teacher in the 1950's. He was one of the most popular and best liked men in LaGrange. His good looks charmed the women and good nature charmed the men, and never did he hesitate to share what little he ever had with anyone in need; he was, in a phrase, generous to a fault. He was also the local sage, the person whom neighbors turned to for advise. He offered to all a ready ear and a willing tongue: the former whenever needed, the latter upon request. And considering his complete lack of any formal education, his command of the English language was nothing short of remarkable. "I think General Sherman would have been very envious of Mama's ability to express herself in such a beautiful and original terms of force," he once wrote of his wife. "I might add that it would make a bobcat's tail curl in horror at the element of mayhem which is evident in her exposition of the King's English at even such a minor incident as a telephone ringing."
Oliver Hood was also a master of the mandolin, the most sought-after music teacher in town, the host of a morning country music show on WLAG in LaGrange, and the organizer or numerous bands that played throughout west Georgia in the 1930's and 40's. As the natives well remember, his home on McGhee Street stood as a virtual community center. Every Sunday afternoon musicians from all around the area would congregate on Oliver's front porch to play and record their music till sundown. Church in the morning, dinner at noon, then music from Oliver Hood's. This was tradition; this was ritual; this was how Sunday afternoons were spent for some twenty years. If music was heard issuing from the direction of McGhee Street, LaGrange knew it was Sunday, and that Oliver Hood was home.
Contrary claims notwithstanding, Oliver Hood wrote "You Are My Sunshine." He wrote the words to the song on the back of a brown paper sack, which his children still possess, and he first performed the song at a VFW convention in LaGrange in 1933; he sang it through a megaphone out of a hotel window, and he sang no less than twenty verses, most of which are lost. Over the years he wrote hundreds of songs, as did his friends. To them music was a not-for-profit venture, an act of love, something that transcended commercial consideration. Never did the thought of copyrighting their music ever come to mind - never that is until "You Are My Sunshine" rose to the top of the music charts in 1940. It was then that Oliver Hood began copyrighting his music - one song too late, as he so well knew. A poor cotton mill doffer doesn't easily quit dreaming of the fame and fortune that might have been, and Oliver Hood went to his grave dreaming.
In 1957, at the urging of one of his sons, he wrote and copyrighted "Somebody Stole My Sunshine Away," a song about the theft of "You Are My Sunshine." A country-western band in California was prepared to record the song in early 1959, but by this time Oliver had grown skeptical and suspicious of all legal dealings; he refused to approve the necessary papers, and the contract was left unsigned upon his death in March. What follows is the chorus from this little known sequel. Never before has it appeared in print:
Somewhere the sun is shining,
But there's rain in my heart today.
There's no denying
My heart keeps crying -
Somebody stole my shunshine away.
As professor Daniel writes in Pickin' on Peachtree: "Mr. Hood was a musician and music teacher widely know in the west Georgia area. Surviving family members and musical associates are adamant in their assertion that Mr. Hood wrote the song. Those whom I interviewed consistantly place the time of the composition as the early 1930s."
To the people of west Georgia, as Professor Daniel concedes, the song's origin has never been a mystery. The author of "You Are My Sunshine" was Oliver Hood, my grandfather.