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by Ron Harlow
I was eleven when Shel Silverstein died. My sixth grade English teacher took a break from the curriculum so our class could read poems Silverstein wrote, because my teacher wanted us to understand just how special of a person the world had lost. I loved Silverstein’s playful humor, his bizarre illustrations, and his wild imagination. I could relate to his spirit.
I was fifteen when Johnny Cash died. At the time, the most I knew about him was that his music video for his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” was nominated for several awards at the VMAs, but didn’t win any. I started listening to his music when I was nineteen, at the insistence of a friend who burned me a copy of At Folsom Prison on CD-R. Being a boisterous and rebellious young man, I felt a connection to Cash’s rawness, his dark demeanor, and his reverence for the outlaw.
In my mind, silly Shel Silverstein and rugged Johnny Cash were far apart on the artistic spectrum. But when the two overlap on a Venn diagram, what you get in the middle is “A Boy Named Sue.” When I first heard the song on Cash’s 1969 album At San Quentin, I played it over and over because the lyrics are brilliant. It’s a perfect ballad built on an absurd premise. There’s a climax of conflict, a moral resolution, and a punch line at the end. I was surprised when I learned years later that Silverstein wrote the lyrics, but not shocked.
Silverstein recorded “A Boy Named Sue” on his 1969 album Boy Named Sue (And His Other Country Songs). His version sounds cartoonish – almost like Yosemite Sam. Silverstein was a talented cartoonist known for publishing his work in Playboy, Yosemite Sam is hilarious, and “A Boy Named Sue” is supposed to be funny, so there’s nothing wrong with how Silverstein’s version sounds.
Cash sings his At San Quentin version with conviction, which is what made it a hit. He took caricature out of it and put character into it. He feeds off the frustrated energy of the San Quentin prisoners in his audience. His tone really sounds like a guy with a lifetime of pent-up anger and resentment finally getting to live out his demented fantasy when he delivers the line: “My name is Sue! How do you do?! NOW YOU GONNA DIE!!!”
The song was a success for both artists. Cash’s At San Quentin version reached number two on the Billboard U.S. singles chart. No other Johnny Cash song ever made it into that chart’s top ten. As for Silverstein, “A Boy Named Sue” earned him the 1970 Grammy award for Best Country Song.
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