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Family claims 'Sunshine' has Minnesota origin

For more than 70 years, the wistful ballad “You Are My Sunshine” has persisted as one of the most recognizable songs in American culture.

Although the tune is most commonly associated with the South — it’s one of two official songs of Louisiana — a local family says its lyrics have Midwestern roots.

Minnie Hokanson of Cannon Falls, who died Nov. 29 at age 103, wrote the song as a poem and mailed it to country musician Paul Rice, said daughter Kathy Hauschildt of Red Wing.

“We don’t have anything but her word,” Hauschildt said, but the family firmly believes the story to be true.

It is unclear when or where Hokanson wrote the lyrics, Hauschildt said. An avid poetry writer for most of her life, Hokanson was known to have sent her work to several publications.

It’s possible she didn’t even sign the poem before mailing it off, daughter Marleen Beckman said.

Hauschildt, who first heard her mother’s story in her late teens, said Hokanson never made a big deal about the song growing up. “She was very bashful about it.”

Beckman said she has been looking through her mother’s things recently in the hope of finding a copy of the poem, but so far her search has come up empty.

There is no documentation that Hokanson wrote or at least inspired the lyrics to the song, but the timeline of the claim is at least plausible.

Hokanson was born June 20, 1910, in Coleman, S.D. She moved with her family at age 5 to Three Forks, Mont., before relocating in the 1920s to the Belle Creek area southeast of Cannon Falls.

Hauschildt said she speculates her mother, who loved listening to the radio, may have heard one of Rice’s songs around that time and decided to mail him the poem.

The song’s first official copyright was in 1940, with writing credits going to country singer and former Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell. But two recordings by the Pine Ridge Boys and the Rice Brothers Gang predate Davis’ version by a year.

History of the song’s origin is spotty, but one account is that Rice, a member of the Rice Brothers Gang, penned the lyrics in the late 1930s and sold the rights to Davis and Mitchell.

A conflicting claim is that Oliver Hood, who played music with Rice at one point, came up with the words.

According to an article in a 1990 issue of Chronicles, the monthly magazine for the Illinois-based Rockford Institute, Hood of LaGrange, Ga., wrote and performed the song in the early 1930s. His family says they still possess a brown paper sack on which the lyrics were first written.

The story goes that Hood also was convinced by a son in 1957 to write a follow up titled “Somebody Stole My Sunshine Away,” but the song was never recorded.

“You Are My Sunshine” has since been recorded numerous times over the decades by artists like Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Johnny Cash.

Hokanson’s family said they don’t have physical evidence to refute the other claims; but, as they prepare to bury their mother today at a funeral service in Goodhue, her memory is all they need.

“We have no proof, but that’s what she told us,” Beckman said. “And we believe it.”

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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