Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Photo: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

300 Songs for 300 Years: Louisiana roots

Festival time is upon us, which makes this an appropriate time to deal some of the most timeless New Orleans music. For this month’s 300 Songs installment, we go back to the very roots and include a couple of the cornerstones that American music was built on.


Louis Moreau Gottschalk, 1844

This piano fantasia was quite literally a delirious piece of music, written in the heat of fever. Evoking the musical traditions of Congo Square within a 1844 classical piece was a novel idea in a couple of ways—for one, bamboula was misunderstood and often disparaged by European audiences. For another, New World musical forms were largely ignored by classical composers at the time; Dvorak’s New World Symphony was still a half-century away. In this sense Gottschalk—whose heritage was part Jewish and part Creole, and who was raised on the corner of Royal and Esplanade—was a pioneer.

Gottschalk made his performing debut in 1840 at the St. Charles Hotel—not, however, the one that stands now; the original burned down in 1951. While stricken with typhoid fever, which caused temporary leaves of his senses, Gottschalk was living in France and boarding with a psychiatrist who believed that delirium was to be studied rather than feared. This may have led the composer to work while still in the grip: At various times in his illness he was seen to be waving his hands, and once recovered enough to write he set down the music that had been running through his head. It wasn’t so much inspired by Congo Square bamboula as by a Creole song that he recalled from his youth, titled “Quan’ Patate La Cuite.” But a song about potatoes probably didn’t capture the effect he was after, so he chose the title “Bamboula,” which linked it to the cultural traditions of Congo Square rather than any actual pieces. It does however include a number of syncopations that mimic the rhythms of African drums.

Gottschalk’s Creole period lasted a relatively brief two years, though the four major pieces it produced are among his best-known. Incidentally, he may be the youngest composer to be represented in our 300 songs, completing “Bamboula” at the age of 15.

“You Are My Sunshine”

Jimmie Davis, 1940

Did Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis really write this song? Probably not, but that’s not to deny Davis his place in music history. He did record the first hit version of “Sunshine” in 1940, setting the song on its way to American classic–hood (the Bing Crosby and Gene Autry versions came the next year). At that point, Davis was more famous for off-color country blues: His 1933 “Red Nightgown Blues” (which he apparently did write) can claim one of the great opening couplets: “We got the license, went to see Parson Brown/ Corinne couldn’t wait and she throwed me down.” That record gets much of its kick from Oscar “Buddy” Woods, a black slide guitarist who was featured uncredited on many of Davis’ early records.

Davis maintained for the next 60 years that he wrote “You Are My Sunshine.” The problem, though, is that it was recorded twice before he acquired the rights. The second version, by the Rice Brothers Gang, credited group member Paul Rice as writer. But in 1990, journalist Theodore Pappas published an article claiming that his grandfather Oliver Hood, who played guitar on the Rice record, was the true writer, and that he had the original lyrics scribbled on a paper bag. He also claimed that Hood wrote a song in 1957 about his experience: “Somebody Stole My Sunshine Away.”

Both “You are My Sunshine” and Jimmie Davis went on to long histories. The song is now one of the most-recorded ever written, ranging from the jolliness of Doris Day’s take to the late-in-life desperation of Johnny Cash’s version. Davis served his first term as governor in 1944, during which time he was still recording country singles and acting in Westerns. He successfully ran again after a 12-year break in 1960, and his governorship accomplished some great and less-than-great things—he built hospitals, raised teachers’ salaries and conserved forests; he also tried unsuccessfully to preserve school segregation. He remained a popular figure despite the wrong moves; his 1960 inauguration was remembered for his riding to the Louisiana capitol, with a white cowboy hat, on a horse named Sunshine.

“You Are My Sunshine” was voted down as state song in 1968 because it doesn’t mention Louisiana, but was given the nod in 1971, sharing the title with ‘’Give Me Louisiana,’’ by Doralice Fontane. Davis still made regular appearances at Jazz Fest until his death in 2000, at age 101.

“Pretty Baby”

Tony Jackson, 1916

Now known as the most innocent of standards, “Pretty Baby” is really an artifact from the heyday of Storyville. And it’s virtually all that survives from the career of composer Tony Jackson, which by all accounts was a musically and socially remarkable one. The son of a freed slave, Jackson was apparently playing in brothels well before hitting his teens. English writer Clare Brown researched his story in 2008 and found that Jackson was the James Booker of his time—a prodigy who could play virtually any blues, jazz or opera piece on the spot, and was known as “the man of a thousand songs.” According to Brown, anyone playing a piano when Jackson walked in the room would be told, “Get up from that piano. You hurting its feelings. Let Tony play.” Yet when he died in Chicago in 1921 he left no recordings and only a couple published songs behind.

More notably he was a close friend and mentor to Jelly Roll Morton, who was 10 years his junior. The pair’s friendship broke at least two taboos—Morton was Creole and soon to marry a showgirl, Jackson was black and gay. The extent of his influence on Morton—and therefore on jazz itself—was likely greater than history remembers. Also tantalizing is the story that Jackson co-wrote an unpublished piece, “The Clock of Time,” which was borrowed by composer J. Berni Barbour in a 1922 song called “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)”. Thus Jackson was indirectly part of the first documented “rock ’n’ roll” song.

“Pretty Baby” was only published in 1916 after hit songwriters Egbert Van Alstyne and Gus Kahn heard Jackson play it in Chicago. They cleaned up its lyrics, paid Jackson $250 and gave themselves co-writer credits (the line “You can talk about your jelly rolls but none of them compare,” a reference to Jackson’s male lover, was the first to go). The song was worked into a Broadway show that year—”A World of Pleasure”—and later returned to its Storyville roots by Louis Malle in his 1978 movie named after the song. But nobody who’s ever recorded the song—whether it was Al Jolson, Dean Martin, or Brenda Lee, who did the only rock ‘n’ roll version—has ever done so without a sly wink in the delivery, so maybe some of Jackson’s spirit survives.