Today is National Trivia Day, the perfect opportunity to dig deep into the interesting and unexpected origins of a well-known, oft-sung country song – “A Boy Named Sue.”
Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin album is iconic for many reasons – the album went triple platinum and was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, and the infamous picture of Johnny Cash boasting the middle finger was taken during the recording of the concert in the prison. Johnny Cash at San Quentin was just one of Cash’s albums featuring the concept of playing live in front of an audience of prisoners, so what made this time around so special? Well, one thing was the song that won Cash Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the Grammys – “A Boy Named Sue” – a song he didn’t even write.
Cash performed and was recorded live at San Quentin on February 24, 1969. Before this performance, Cash had a slew of famous musicians at his house for a party. The guest list included artists like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Shel Silverstein. As a form of entertainment, Cash had his guests gather around and perform whatever song they were currently working on. Silverstein played a song entitled “A Boy Named Sue.” Cash thought it was both hilarious and genius, so much so that he asked Silverstein to write down the lyrics for him.
While it may seem odd that Shel Silverstein, a man known in popular culture as a children’s author and illustrator, was at a party with country and folk musical legends like Cash, Dylan and Mitchell, there was really much more to Silverstein than his classic and much-loved book Where the Sidewalk Ends. He was also a well-regarded singer and songwriter, writing for groups and artists like Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show and Loretta Lynn.
Another less well-known side of Silverstein, perhaps a fact only known by a few parents out there, is that he was also a cartoonist for Playboy magazine where he wrote and drew an illustrated travel journal! So, with his knack for rhyme, lyric, and the provocative, it’s no surprise that he would have a lyrical hit with the likes of “A Boy Named Sue” up his sleeve. According to Silverstein, he drew inspiration for the lyrics to this song from friend and fellow humorist Jean Shepard, who was teased as a child for having a “girl’s” name.
Check out this link to watch Cash and Silverstein singing “A Boy Named Sue” together on Johnny Cash’s variety show:
Cash never would have sung Silverstein’s song if not for his wife June. She convinced Cash to take the lyrics Silverstein wrote down for him on the road to California, saying that it would be a great song to play at San Quentin. Cash, however, was hesitant about the idea because he had only just heard the song for the first time the night before, and he wasn’t sure how people would respond to the song. Despite his misgivings, he brought the lyrics along with him, and a few songs into the set (after he had time to build up some courage), he pulled out the lyrics to “A Boy Named Sue.” And what ensued was an iconic moment.
Here’s an audio recording of Cash performing the song for the first time at San Quentin Prison:
All of the laughs, mess ups, and other such inflections that are clearly heard in Cash’s version of the song are all completely genuine because he is really reading and understanding the lyrics as a performance for the first time. He is truly playing off of the reaction of the crowd and of his band (which was also performing the song for the first time) in order to figure out how to best recount and sing this tale. It is the genuine nature of the song that warrants it all of its accolades – and today it’s a true classic.
Silverstein would also win a Grammy for “Best Country Song” with this song, and later in 1978, he returned to the topic of that boy named Sue, but this time telling the tale from the father’s perspective. And of course, that song was called “The Father of a Boy Named Sue”!
Summer Apostol interned at the Birthplace of Country Music in fall 2017; she is studying history and sociology at Emory & Henry College.