You’re My Melancholy Sunshine

April 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

Most of us think of the song, “You Are My Sunshine,” as a sweet, lighthearted chorus, but the original version is more of a melancholy ballad. When Pakou and I saw The Civil Wars this weekend, they performed their cover of the song, intentionally reaching back to the sad moments in which it was written just before WWII.

When they sing it, you understand that the narrator is currently living through a period of grey skies. It’s not a song of sentimental appreciation for the lover; it’s a desperate plea to return, to stay, to be near.

It’s amazing how a simple change completely reinterprets a song, the most famous example being Aretha Franklin’s cover of “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”  Written by Otis Redding in 1965 and covered by Aretha just two years later, the song went from a cry for respect from a woman to a powerful symbol of women’s rights.

Both renditions are amazing (I love watching Otis dance!), but Aretha’s version, tied to some injustice, to an international, churning frustration pushed the already popular song into becoming a feminist icon.

For me, changing the gender of the singer in Glee’s cover of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” similarly transformed the song to a powerful expression of pain and bitterness. Since I first heard it, I’ve loved the music to James Brown’s song. There’s those intensely dramatic first bars, the strings running down the scales to begin the slow and soulful beat of the song, the strings now periodically rising and falling in the background. And I love James Brown, his funk and “I Feel Good” voice. But the chauvinistic words have always chafed at me, even if intended to be complimentary to the women in his life.

While a few women have covered this song before, like Christina Aguilera and Joss Stone, their versions still seem self-glorified, as if women are the only good things around. Then last year, the TV show Glee covered it, placing a pregnant teenage girl at the center of the song. In the loose storyline behind this scene, she’s become increasingly outcast at school and at home while the guy she slept with has barely faced any troubles.

Forget for a moment the cheesy choreography of swelling bellies and the fact that Dianna Agron can’t sing soul to save the Tasmanian Forester Kangaroo.

For many women in abusive relationships, trapped in sex trafficking, or just hindered by poverty and single motherhood, this is a real and bitter reality. When I hear this sung by a lonely woman struggling to survive, to find some self-worth in a male-dominated world, the song takes on a power that matches the music, a power I don’t feel is present when sung by a man looking at his success and realizing women make it more meaningful.

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§ 2 Responses to You’re My Melancholy Sunshine

  • Dave says:

    Very informative. Thanks Dave

  • This is a great post, I love the song by the Civil Wars, I love how they like to sing the dark side of music. It was a great history lessson. Even with the darker side, my girls were sitting in my lap when I was playing it and both of them started to bob their heads to the music, so it still moves the soul.

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