In the always flamboyant circus that is Louisiana politics, former Democratic governor Jimmie Davis might look at first like just another clown act--a country singer who rode his horse up the steps of the state Capitol, sang his legislative programs to the legislature (complete with backup chorus) and remains better known for writing "You Are My Sunshine."
But Friday he celebrated his 100th birthday amid an outpouring of music and affection from across the state's political spectrum, hailed as a sharecropper's son who fueled populism with hope instead of resentment, left budget surpluses in his wake instead of scandals, and, among other achievements, may have been an early inspiration to Ronald Reagan.
"Just imagine: He served two terms as governor of Louisiana and was never indicted," former governor Edwin Edwards told a cheering crowd of more than 800 as Davis sat impassively on the stage of the Baton Rouge Radisson Hotel. "That's a genuine achievement."
Edwards, the rambling, gambling, catch-me-if-you-can bad boy of Pelican State chief executives, joined incumbent Gov. Mike Foster and every other living Louisiana ex-governor in paying tribute to their long-lived predecessor.
Others on hand ranged from former U.S. Senate Finance Committee chairman Russell B. Long of New Orleans to former Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Jimmy Taylor of Baton Rouge and the gospel-singing Lewis Family of bluegrass fame.
"Louisianans understood politics was theater before someone like Jesse Ventura was even born," said Carolyn R. Phillips, director of the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame ("we induct 'em, they indict 'em") in Winnfield, which has named Davis "Politician of the Century." "By singing on the radio and making movies in Hollywood while he was governor, Jimmie Davis was just keeping to that tradition."
But Theodore L. "Ted" Jones, a Washington and Baton Rouge lobbyist and sometime Davis band member, believes the Singing Governor from the piney woods of Jackson Parish was instrumental in exporting that tradition to the larger, national stage.
Back in 1947, during Davis's first term when he was in Hollywood acting in "Louisiana," a film based on his life, "Ronald Reagan and his then-wife, Jane Wyman, would have dinner with the governor and his wife--Reagan was head of the Screen Actors Guild then and very curious about politics. And every night he would ask Davis the same question: How does a performer get to be governor?"
Whatever answer Davis gave is unrecorded. Though he performed regularly with his band until last year, he is frail now and fields few questions about those days as he looks toward becoming perhaps the first governor--if not the first human being--to have lived in three centuries. But he sang at his own party, cheered on by well-wishers clutching copies of a special 100th-birthday CD: "You Are My Sunshine" sung by everyone from Bing Crosby to Aretha Franklin.
Clearly the Jimmie Davis story, even more than the Ronald Reagan story, is the stuff of improbable screenplays.
The man who once rode his horse Sunshine into the governor's office ("the first time all of a horse has been in that office," wrote a reporter at the time) was also the state's most educated chief executive ever. He is a former college teacher with a master's degree who picked cotton as well as a guitar; a key early supporter of both a little-known senator named Harry Truman and a little-known guitarist named Elvis Presley; a sometime cowboy movie actor ("Cyclone Prairie Rangers," "Square Dance Katy") who penned more than 800 songs ("Shackles and Chains," "When It's Round Up Time in Heaven") and launched Louisiana agriculture's first artificial insemination program.
"You Are My Sunshine," which he wrote in 1939, is considered one of the world's most recognizable songs, up there with "Happy Birthday." It has been recorded by more than 350 artists, sold millions of records and been translated into 30 languages from Lapland to Japan. Thomas "Sleepy" Brown, 78, the last surviving member of Davis's original backup band, estimates that the song still yields the former governor $1,000 a month in royalties.
Politically, Davis was a north Louisiana neighbor and protege of the legendary share-the-wealth Kingfish, Huey Long, but during his first term (1944-48) managed to bridge the bitter social and political divisions that followed Long's stormy reign in the 1920s and 1930s.
Attacked by racists for performing with one of country music's first integrated bands, he was nonetheless swept to his second term in 1959 with the support of die-hard segregationists with whom he never appeared comfortable.
"Louisianans overwhelmingly resisted the breakdown of racial barriers in the 1960s," said Kevin Fontenot, a Tulane University history instructor writing a biography of Davis. "But unlike so many other Southern governors, Davis managed the transition so that, however stormy the rhetoric in the state, there was never any violence or closed schools. He has just never been a demagogue or a hater. I've never found anyplace where he said ugly things about black people."
But then, as birthday party speakers noted to much applause, Davis never seemed to say anything bad about anybody. What so frustrated his opponents was that he never joined the outrageous mudslinging tradition of Louisiana politics, never answered attacks, personal or political, and rarely even referred to his opponents. "He'd just start singing, and people seemed to feel better," Fontenot said.
Once, when asked his position on a controversial law restricting cattle grazing, Davis swung the band into "Don't Fence Me In." When opponents tried to outrage voters at rallies by playing such vaguely risque Davis records as "High Steppin' Mama" and "Red Nightgown Blues," they touched off mass dancing instead.
Yet he was far from a dilettante governor. Aided by the booming economies of the postwar years and the early 1960s, he built hospitals, expanded Louisiana's road construction, set up the state's first civil service system, raised teachers' salaries, and took bold conservation measures long before the environmental movement.
The president of Louisiana's 28,000-member Retired State Employees Association told the crowd that "we look on him as a saint" for enacting a landmark law providing pensions for those in state jobs.
Davis outraged his conservative backers during his first term by vetoing a controversial right-to-work law he felt unfairly restricted picketing. But at the end of each legislative session, he'd publicly bury the hatchet, leading legislators in one of his best-known songs, "It Makes No Difference Now."
Asked Friday if any former Davis adversaries were attending the party, longtime political consultant Gus Weill of Baton Rouge replied: "How could they? He's outlived them all!"
The $100-a-plate party was listed as a benefit for the Jimmie Davis Tabernacle, a nondenominational chapel he built on State Route 542 south of his birthplace of Quitman, just down from the Jackson Parish Police Jury Road Barn and across from the Peckerwood Hill Store.
It was near there in the long-vanished community of Beech Springs, Weill told the crowd, that Davis's character and compassion were "sculpted" by a degree of rural isolation and poverty almost unimaginable in today's America.
He was born the first of 11 children of a father with a third-grade education who had walked halfway across the eastern United States to settle in the red clay hills of northern Louisiana. The family sharecropped for 25 years of hardscrabble living, with as many as 14 people living in a two-room shack.
"I asked him once if they had an outhouse," Weill told the crowd. "He said, 'No, we had outwoods.' "
When Davis's little sister went blind and died from lack of medical care--there was neither a doctor nor money to pay one--9-year-old Jimmie helped his father build her coffin out of found wood.
The children worked 14-hour days in the cotton fields. One year, a favorite Davis story goes, "I got a blown-up hog bladder and a plucked blackbird for Christmas. We ate the blackbird and played with the hog bladder and thought we were well off."
Yet Davis hungered for education. After high school, he hopped a freight to Louisiana College in Pineville, working his way through by waiting tables and singing on street corners with an old guitar given to him by his sister's husband.
It took him seven years to pay off all his college debts. By then, he'd taught high school, earned a master's degree from Louisiana State University and taught at a women's college in Shreveport. There he lived across the street from Huey Long, who was then making waves as a member of the state Public Service Commission. Long advised him to consider a career in politics.
Instead, Davis began singing on KWKH radio, where a scout for Decca Records heard him and in 1927 offered him a record audition in Chicago. From that came his first hit song, "Nobody's Darling but Mine," recorded also by such nationwide stars as Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo and the Andrews Sisters. The poor sharecropper's son bought a 100-acre farm with the royalties. He was on his way.
For most of the evening Friday, Davis sat silently on the stage, attentive but unsmiling in a blue suit, red tie and horn-rimmed spectacles. He was wheeled in in a wheelchair well after dessert, more than an hour late to his own party after a day filled with two rehearsals and an interview for the "Today" show. He told well-wishers he was tired and might not make it through the program. But after an hour of speeches and presentations, he was joined onstage by his wife, Anna, and the Jimmie Davis Singers. Singing from his chair, he started shakily into "Today I Started Loving You Again."
"Sing it, Jimmie!" someone yelled from the cheering audience, and with every verse the century-old baritone grew stronger.
He sang "Coming Home" and "Nobody's Darling" ("I'd rather be somebody's darling/ Than a poor boy who nobody knows"), and soon he was telling stories and cracking up the crowd with his deadpan style.
"I feel so obligated . . . so many personal calls . . . from as far away as China and Japan," he said. "I've listened carefully to all the kind words said, and that's a tonic. . . .
"There are so many of you here I thought I would never see again. A while back, I thought I wouldn't see anybody again."
Then he began reciting: "With three other country musicians/ A long time ago/ We were barnstorming the country/ Trying to make a little dough . . . And so it was one July the 6th/ That we penned a little ditty/ That sounded something like this:"
You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
His voice grew stronger and stronger with the applause, and soon everybody was singing, and people were laughing and clapping and cheering and weeping as one verse followed another.
"ONE MORE TIME!" Davis called, raising his hands like a cheerleader, and the singing and the cheering rolled on and on and on.
"This is history!" yelled Gus Weill from the podium. "One hundred years! We'll never see anything like this again!"
Then they wheeled in a giant birthday cake and everybody sang "Happy Birthday" loud enough to be heard from Shreveport to Chalmette.
James Houston Davis, age 100, gazed out over the audience with something very much like wonder.
"I almost didn't come tonight," he said.
CAPTION: Gov. Jimmie Davis rode to the Louisiana Capitol on horseback to sing his legislative agenda in the early 1960s. The country crooner wrote a string of hits, including "You Are My Sunshine."
CAPTION: Former Louisiana governor and country singer Jimmie Davis applauds Mickey Mangum's gospel tribute at his 100th-birthday party.
CAPTION: A hundred points of light: Davis can look back on a career that bridged social and political rifts.