Jimmie Davis, Louisiana's Singing Governor

There is a long and perhaps interesting history to be written about the uses of music in American politics. Richard Nixon, a parlor pianist for whom a talent in music seemed to soften the impression of a thug, would tickle, well, coerce, some music from the ivories once in a while on the campaign trail. Barry Goldwater used a rewritten version of “Hello Dolly,” “Hello Barry.” Ronald Reagan used “Born in the USA” until Springsteen told him to knock it off, and Bill Clinton played the sax on Arsenio Hall’s show. But for wedding talent and success in song with politics, there was never anybody to rival Jimmie Davis, the two-time governor of Louisiana.

Music and politics seem like such a natural union that it is surprising that they are not more often intertwined. The political rhetoric of the campaign trail resembles music as much as ordinary speech. The speaker is a performer in more ways than one. He stands before an audience of enthusiastic supporters and delivers something that they expect to hear. Like music, a political speech usually consists of a number of themes. Often these themes are linked by refrains (or slogans). In the hands of a gifted performer, a political speech will build to a climax, often a euphonious phrase like, “A kinder, gentler nation,” or “Stay Out The Bushes!” The range of vocal timbre in such a speech is far greater than that of mere talk. When President Kennedy built up his volume to the climax of “Ich bin ein Berliner,” there was no doubt about the emotional content, even if he was, in fact, saying that he was a doughnut in the local dialect. The performer gains in credibility through his sheer stage presence, through his appearance, gestures, and posture. Think of Leonard Bernstein conducting, of Elvis, of Michael Jackson.

In everyday speech, say a conversation or even a lecture, the speaker expects to be engaged by his audience in an actual exchange of ideas. In a political speech, the speaker goes through his spiel and his supporters reward him with overwhelming applause. The audience’s role is to glorify the politician’s performance, not to consider his actual sentiments.

It is often complained that there are few spellbinding speakers in American politics any more. President Reagan was a great speech maker – unsurprisingly because of his background as an actor. Mario Cuomo was another great speechmaker, and achieved national prominence on the strength of his televised address to the 1984 Democratic convention. The power of Jesse Jackson’s rhetoric is rooted in Baptist preaching, which has close connections to gospel music. (One of the few master speakers whose self-presentation is not especially musical is President Clinton, who is renowned for his ability to make an empathetic connection with the audience. But then, he played sax.)

Compare these to the candidates in the 2000 presidential election, both boring, wooden speakers. Albert Gore lacked modulation and his speeches were often compared to a drone. George W. Bush was amateurish and jokey, lacking in self-confidence and tended to mangle his phrases, something no professional performer can afford to do onstage. Without seeking to claim a preponderant role for speaking style, it is no coincidence that the 2000 Presidential election seemed to be defined by which candidate would be booed offstage. And they essentially tied in this contest. Yet it is also true that great speaking ability has seldom been, on its own, a ticket to high office. Clinton, for instance, became a far better speaker after attaining the presidency.

Nobody ever accused Jimmie Davis of being a great speaker, but his songs were, as they might say in bayou country, sumpin spatial. Earl Long, younger brother of the “Kingfish” Huey Long and himself twice governor of Louisiana, complained: “How you going to debate a clown like that? All he gives is music.”

During the 1944 gubernatorial election, Long’s campaign resorted to playing Davis’s hits as a mockery, but had to stop when audiences began dancing to “You Are My Sunshine,” and other songs. Long thought that such Davis songs as “Tom Cat and Pussy Blues” and “She’s a Hum Dinger” would make Davis appear morally unfit for office. But Davis won that campaign. (Long won the next one, partly because the popular Davis was prohibited from running for office for a second time in a row.) Davis won a second term in 1960. His accomplishments in office were few – he instituted drivers’ licenses for the first time in the 40s and didn’t resist desegregation much in the 60s. He built a new governor’s mansion hard on a highway, and a gigantic “bridge to nowhere” that he dubbed the “Sunshine Bridge.” Perhaps his greatest feat was doing little harm past appointing former sidemen to no-show jobs. Governor Edwin Edwards noted at a Davis birthday party, “He was never once indicted – that’s unreal.” Edwards himself was eventually convicted of racketeering. (Edwards also once told a reporter that “The odds are 8-5” that he would keep his New Year’s resolution to quit gambling. Is Louisiana even a state?)

Davis’s career in music was more illustrious. He wrote more than 400 songs, recorded more than 50 albums, and performed at the Grand Ole Opry into his 90s. “You Are My Sunshine,” first recorded in 1940, became an international hit and was a favorite of Armed Forces Radio in WWII. It was recorded 350 times,` in 30 languages. Other hits included “Nobody’s Darlin but Mine,” and “Alimony Blues.” His office of governor didn’t prevent Davis from appearing in films, and he set the state record for absenteeism during his first term while making Hollywood westerns.

Davis was born the son of a sharecropper and was never exactly sure of his age, although he was said to be 101 at his death. Ever a populist, he once wrote a children’s song called “Roundup Time in Heaven,” inspired, in the words of the Washington Post, “by his desire not to see them hit by cars.”

“It’s better in politics to give folks very little talking and a whole lot of songs,” he said. And his administrations were, by and large, the old song and dance, albeit more amusing and less toxic than others.