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What do Shel Silverstein and Johnny Cash have in common? October 29, 2008

Well, one’s a late, beloved story-spinner, songwriter, musician and poet (heavy on the children’s fare, with Where the Sidewalk Ends 30th Anniversary Edition: Poems and Drawings and A Light in the Attic (20th Anniversary Edition Book & CD)) and the other is a late, beloved country-western singer, songwriter and entertainer.

What they have in common is the smash-hit novelty song A Boy Named Sue, the most popular version of which Johnny Cash recorded live for his acclaimed 1969 At San Quentin (Legacy Edition) album. Back in the days when there was much country/pop/folk cross-over and we didn’t have satellite radio to whittle down our music into narrow, super-specialized categories, we all knew A Boy Named Sue. I remember an early elementary classmate’s family had an organ that fascinated me (a then-fledgling pianist) with the color-coded sheet music to the song.

Now that I hear the song not infrequently — my husband listens to The Legend of Johnny Cash
quite a bit — I wonder how they managed to set that mostly-spoken ditty to music, but that’s another matter. What I really marvel at is my very recent learning that Silverstein was much more than the writer of witty, often nonsensical verse — that he also penned A Boy Named Sue (and co-performs it in a rowdy duet with Cash in the YouTube video above).

When my younger son tripped off to school just this morning with Silverstein’s Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back, I decided this fascinating bit needed to be the blog topic today.

Here’s another dash of trivia: the song A Boy Named Sue was reportedly inspired by late humorist Jean Shepherd, a close friend of Silverstein who himself took his share of ribbing from having a feminine-sounding name. (Are you familiar with the neo-Christmas classic, 1983 TV movie A Christmas Story [HD DVD]? That’s based on a Shepherd story, with his own voice narrating.)

Wikipedia  further suggests the title A Boy Named Sue might have been inspired by male lawyer Sue K. Hicks, a prosecutor in the historic Scopes Trial. He was reportedly named Sue after his mother, who is said to have died in childbirth.

But if you’ve read any of Silverstein’s work at all, you know his amazing, crazy imagination didn’t necessarily need outside inspiration. I hope you enjoy the video above for a rare glimpse into the wild persona who was Shel Silverstein.

posted by Janie McQueen, author of The New Magic Bookshelf: Finding Great Books Your Child Will Treasure Forever



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