Music Monday: A Boy Named Shel

It’s one of those serendipitous Internet connections again.

I was exchanging comments with a fellow blogger, Michel Kuch, on his wonderfully unique blog – Kuched, when he mentioned the song, Solitary Man. I was aware of the song, it’s one of my favorite Neil Diamond songs. But Michael mentioned that Johnny Cash sang it as well, and had a big hit with it.

So I immediately went to YouTube to listen to the Johnny Cash version, thinking there might be a blog here somewhere, linking the song with the solitary nature of our current lockdown. I wasn’t able to fully make such a blog-worthy link, but while I was out on YouTube, I did notice a link to one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs, A Boy Named Sue.

That led to reading a bit about the song, and what I discovered was fascinating.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the song is who wrote it.

Go ahead – guess – you’ll never get it.

Give up?

The song was written by a well-known children’s book author and poet, Shel Silverstein. Among his most famous books are The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

I didn’t know was that Silverstein was also an accomplished songwriter and performer. Besides A Boy Named Sue, another famous song he wrote was “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone‘” made famous by the band  Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show.

I had a hard time picturing a children’s author writing something as hard-edged as A Boy Named Sue, so I did a bit more digging. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia:

The core story of the song was inspired by humorist Jean Shepherd, a close friend of Silverstein, who was often taunted as a child because of his feminine-sounding name.

According to Shel Silverstein’s biographer Mitch Myers, it was June Carter Cash who encouraged her husband to perform the song. Silverstein introduced it to them at what they called a “Guitar Pull,” where musicians would pass a guitar around and play their songs.

Cash recorded the song live in concert on February 24, 1969 at California’s San Quentin State Prison for his At San Quentin album. In his autobiography, Cash wrote that he had just received the song and only read over it a couple of times. It was included in that concert to try it out—he did not know the words and on the filmed recording he can be seen regularly referring to a piece of paper. Cash was surprised at how well the song went over with the audience. The rough, spontaneous performance with sparse accompaniment ultimately became one of Cash’s biggest hits. According to Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, neither the British TV crew filming the concert nor his band knew he planned to perform the song; he used a lyric sheet on stage while Perkins and the band improvised the backing on the spot. While another song, “San Quentin”, was expected to be the major new song featured in the concert and subsequent album (so much so the album includes two performances of “San Quentin”), “A Boy Named Sue” ended up being the concert’s major find.

According to a story at the web site Wide Open Country, everything about the performance was about as authentic as it’d get. Cash pulls of the performance as if he’d rehearsed every word. His form of talk-singing just kind of came as a natural extension of not having any melody in mind. And when you hear him chuckle, it’s an honest reaction to Silverstein’s clever writing.

I’ve always liked the song, now I REALLY like it. And I’m not alone, it earned a Grammy in 1970.

So without further ado, here’s the video of Johnny performing the song at San Quentin

Hres the video (audio actually) of Shel singing the song:

and to tie the two songs together; here’s a brief video of the two of them singing an excerpt from the song, together:

So thank you again to Michael Kuch for the inspiration for this blog, and to the wonderful web that has been woven by the Internet.

*image from Born to Listen

31 thoughts on “Music Monday: A Boy Named Shel

  1. OH wow! I love Shel Silverstein as an author and I never would have guessed he wrote that song! My husband and I love the song too. Thanks for sharing this. You have good taste in music! 🙂 (now movies…… LOL)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is what I come here for! This is such an informative and entertaining post, Jim! I have always been familiar with the song and its popularity, but I did not know the backstory and origin. Knowing that makes the song even more of a real gem. Well written!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow, they sound pretty different. when I heard Johnny Cash sing it, I’d never imagine that a person with singer-style liks Silverstein would’ve written it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Funnily enough, I’ve never really liked this song, though I have a lot of JC’s albums in my library. I knew a little of the back story but you have filled in some very large gaps in my knowledge! His version of Solitary Man is the title track of his American III album – part of that great series he recorded late in life. Shel Silverstein wrote virtually all of Dr Hook’s early stuff, and his sense of humour shines through the songs. Cover of the Rolling Stone was initially banned here by the BBC, deemed as advertising and therefore not allowed. The Beeb at that time owned the listings magazine Radio Times, and the irony wasn’t lost on its own DJs, who took to playing a version they had re-recorded, with them shouting the words Radio Times during the chorus. The ban was lifted 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know your music – I just found out about the Silverstein/Dr. Hook connection yesterday. Love the story about how the song was banned for a while – three cheers to the DJs!


  5. Great story behind a classic song! Johnny Cash was one of a kind, and his wife was right on in encouraging him to sing the song. Having fathered three daughters, they should be thankful their names are not too far off of the mark. Thank you Jim for taking the time to put this post together.

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