Allen Toussaint-inspired bill would protect Louisiana icons’ publicity rights

Allen Toussaint performs at the Orpheum Theatre on Aug. 27, 2015. Toussaint died later that year at 77.

Gov. John Bel Edwards can jettison Louisiana’s official state song and replace it with two better-known tunes under legislation that will reach his desk Thursday.

The official state song is “Give Me Louisiana,” written in 1970 by Doralice Fontane, and not only former Gov. Jimmie Davis’ version of “You Are My Sunshine,” as many thought.

“I didn’t realize it until we got into the debate,” Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee said Wednesday. He sponsored the amendment that would rid Louisiana of its official state song for the past half century. In 1977, "Sunshine" was also added as another official state song. It's confusing.

Magee’s change is part of House Bill 351, which would make Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” as the state’s “cultural” song and “You Are My Sunshine” as the state’s “Louisiana” song.

Legislators can’t seem to articulate just how a “cultural” song differs from a “Louisiana” song. Whatever. The new measure would clear up the state song confusion. Should Edwards sign the measure into law, Louisiana will have “two state songs. We got an A and a B,” Magee said.

State Rep. Vincent J. Pierre, the Lafayette Democrat who sponsored HB351, said Wednesday, “I truly don’t know what the difference is between a Louisiana song and cultural song, but the body wasn’t with it (“Southern Nights”) being a Louisiana song.” His goal for the instrument is “to recognize a true talent, someone from Louisiana who brought honor to Louisiana," Pierre said.

A New Orleans native, Toussaint was a pianist, songwriter and producer who influenced a number of jazz musicians and rock stars of national and local reputation. His songs were covered by some of the most popular groups of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, including The Rolling Stones. Though his “Mess of Love,” “Fortune Teller” and “Working in a Coal Mine” were well-known locally, country singer Glen Campbell’s 1977 cover of “Southern Nights,” inspired by Toussaint’s visits with relatives in rural Louisiana, hit number one on Billboard’s country and pop charts.

HB351 marched easily through committee, then sat three weeks awaiting a vote by the full House.

Pierre said he ran into the buzzsaw of opposition from lawmakers wanting to protect the "official state song" status of “You Are My Sunshine.”

Magee’s amendment went a long way to calming the opponents as did his willingness to make “Southern Nights” the cultural song, Pierre said. The compromise crossed out the official state song, which made clear to legislators that “Sunshine” was not it, then created two categories of official state songs. Within a week, HB351 cleared votes in both chambers. Senate President Page Cortez signed the bill Wednesday morning and sent it to the governor.

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"Sunshine" was sung in 1940 by country music singer Jimmie Davis, who is from Jackson Parish, and has been performed by dozens of artists since. Davis sang the song, well, a lot, in his many runs for political office. He was elected to the Public Service Commission. Then, Davis held the state's highest office from 1944 to 1948 and then again from 1960 to 1964.

Both Pierre and Magee said they like “Sunshine” and have heard the song all their lives. “My grandmother sang it to me,” Magee recalled. Both also thought it was the only official state song.

No, that’s “Give Me Louisiana,” written by Doralice C. Fontane Cassano, a piano teacher, socialite, and occasional composer. Fontane used her Baton Rouge home at 838 North Boulevard, a few doors down from what then was the Governor’s Mansion, as a venue for weddings and society events.

The song became the state’s official anthem in 1970. “Give Me Louisiana” is a string of images about the state's history and culture, including waxing lyrically about "old plantation days, makes good old Louisiana, the sweetest of all states."

In the mid-1970s, some legislators made a move to replace Fontane’s song with “Sunshine.” She appeared almost daily at the State Capitol lobbying against the change. The bill to make “Sunshine” the official state song was defeated. In 1977, “Sunshine” was added as a state song.

For years, legislators have attempted to put popular songs about Louisiana or written by Louisiana musicians into some official status.

A lot of time was taken up during the 2019 session arguing about whether to make “Jambalaya” the official state song. But that tune was written by Hank Williams, who is from Alabama, and mispronounces bayou. The “Jambalaya” effort was thwarted by the “Sunshine” defenders with help from the “Jole Blon” crowd.

“Jole Blon” has evolved, since first recorded by the Breaux Brothers in 1929, into something of an unofficial anthem for Acadiana and then into a movement to make it the official state song. It’s also McNeese State University’s fight song, which doomed any chance of “Jole Blon” being made the official anthem by a legislative body composed largely of lawmakers from LSU and other Louisiana colleges that all have their own fight songs.

Norby Chabert, then a state senator from Houma and son of the legendary powerbroker Leonard Chabert, tried to negotiate a deal between the “Jole Blon” and “Sunshine” forces – “Jambalaya” had quickly fallen from contention – by facetiously suggesting Vermilion Parish singer D.L. Menard’s "La Porte En Arrière," a honky tonk tune probably as well known as “Jole Blon” in Acadiana, get the official state nod.

But the contest was left unresolved when the 2019 Legislature adjourned without a vote being taken.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.