Ask the average Johnny Cash fan if they are aware that "A Boy Named Sue" was actually written by Shel Silverstein and the answer is likely to fall somewhere between "no" and "you can't possibly be serious." But if this same Cash fan is familiar with the works of Silverstein, it shouldn't be too hard for him to believe that this timeless song was written the same guy who brought us The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece.
Like Silverstein's other poetry and prose, "A Boy Named Sue" is deceptively simple in style, form, and meter, while harboring a deeper message underneath all the silliness.
Although the poem has a somewhat unusual rhyme scheme - A-A-B-C-C-B - it is easy to recite and is sung more like a spoken word piece than an actual melody. The lyrics are loaded with sensory references, which put you right in the middle of the action with Sue from start to finish. Concrete images like "Kicking and a' gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer" knock you right onto the floor of the honky tonk with Sue and his father, with similes such as "kicked like a mule" and "bit like a crocodile" furthering the visual impact.
Another Silverstein trademark is his ability to convey a lot of meaning in a few simple words:And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye.
He was big and bent and gray and old
The parallel structure of "adjective + and" gives this line a childlike feel and we are left with a very strong picture in our minds of what Sue's father must look like, even though Silverstein uses very basic words to describe him.
Silverstein's talent lies in his ability to communicate deep and universal truths in the simplest terms imaginable; instead of bogging us down in fancy vocabulary and complicated rhetoric, his stories and poems are direct, easy to read, and funny. You don't even realize how deep his writing is until you give it a second read and start to recognize the real message behind the words.
Born in 1930, Silverstein was always drawing and sketching as a kid, developing his own style from the very beginning. He has said in interviews that he's glad he wasn't exposed to any poets or artists in childhood so that he could do his own thing without outside influences shaping his work. Like Johnny Cash, Silverstein served time in the military, drawing cartoons for army publications, and then later went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
His big break, however, came when he met Hugh Hefner in 1956, shortly after returning from the armed forces. As Hef later recalled, "He dropped off his drawings and I didn't get around to them and a couple of weeks later he came back demanding his cartoons back....There were about fifteen drawings and I laid them out on my desk. How's five hundred, six hundred dollars? I asked, Shel nodded his head with a bit of uncertainty." (Source)
That serendipitous connection launched Shel's Playboy career. Hefner sent him around America and the world, writing travelogues and sketching cartoons that were sandwiched between glossy pictures of naked women for the better half of the decade. This was the Shel Silverstein we were never told about as innocent kids in elementary school, only exposed to "The Giving Tree" and other sentimental works by the guy. In reality, however, he was even cooler than that. As his friend, Skip Williamson, remembered: "Shel and I would talk a lot. His mind was brim full of all kinds of s---. Stuff that was always spilling out in songs and poems and cartoons and conversations. His thoughts were constantly overflowing his physical casing. His ideas were organic, had souls and needed to get out and live on their own. More often than not he'd be confronting them internally, lost in inwardly implicit conversation, deciphering the spooks and enigmas that were clawing their way out. Those of us on the outside were frequently left out of the equation. We couldn't compete with the depth and turmoil of his internal sprites. Sometimes he would grab them as they escaped and scrawl their essence on bits of paper. His conversations with them were way more interesting than anything I could bring to the party. There were many times when his mind and heart were not in the same room we were in."
The two of them spent sleepless nights together, writing songs and poems. Shel was up for anything; he went everywhere from Uganda to Fire Island to White Sox spring training to a bullfight in Spain, and was always a good sport. His vast collection of songs, screenplays, poems, stories, and plays have been published in countless languages all over the world and have reached millions of people over the past five decades. He truly was a modern-day Renaissance Man and considering his immense talent, lived a relatively tame life, free of the hard drug abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts that tormented Johnny Cash and many other rock heroes. Even before he became a father himself, Shel Silverstein always understood children better than most adults. Who else could have brought us the story of a boy named Sue?