Isn't it interesting how great artists, writers, and musicians of every major movement somehow seem to end up becoming friends with each other?
T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein were all homies during the Modernist poetry movement; Monet and Renoir sipped French coffee together at the peak of Impressionism; and in the 1950s in America, Neil Simon, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash used to kick it every now and then.
Wait...Shel Silverstein? You probably remember him from the 4th grade, when you probably first read "A Light in the Attic," "Falling Up," or "Where the Sidewalk Ends." His poetry collections and trademark black and white sketches have captured the imaginations of people of all ages, making Silverstein a cultural icon for children's poetry.
What you may not know about Shel Silverstein is that he also made quite a name for himself in the adult world. The guy was a regular contributing writer for Playboy during its first decade of existence, believe it or not. (Your 4th-grade teacher probably didn't mention that.) Hugh Hefner sent Shel Silverstein all over the world so he could write an entertaining and satirical column on the most interesting people he could find from sea to shining sea.
In addition to penning a great deal of work for Playboy, Silverstein was a Renaissance man of sorts: along with being a poet and artist, he was also a prolific songwriter. Not to mention that he happened to be friends with Johnny Cash. All these talented guys used to get together and have "Guitar Pools," in which each person would go around the circle and introduce the group to his or her new song, and the other group members would critique them. Silverstein, famous for his wit and humor, debuted his newest song, the appropriately witty and humorous "A Boy Named Sue," during one of these guitar pools in 1969. June Carter, who had just married Johnny Cash, suggested that her husband try to play Shel's song and Cash agreed.
That was the same year that Cash, having always harbored a soft spot for the down n' out, was in the middle of a concert tour of American prisons. He had already skyrocketed to fame after the recording of his legendary At Folsom Prison album in 1968. The next year, he continued performing at other high-security establishments, including California's famous San Quentin Prison. Standing before a crowd of inmates, guitar in hand, Cash addressed the audience, asking one of his musicians for back-up help for his next song. You see, Cash didn't even know "A Boy Named Sue" real well. Even though he had memorized the basic chords, he didn't know the words and literally read them off a sheet of paper the first time he ever performed the song to a live audience at San Quentin.
As you would hear from the shouts, laughs, and cheers, "A Boy Named Sue" was an instant hit: the synergy of Cash and Silverstein proved remarkable and the song soon climbed to number one on the charts. But what makes this seemingly goofy song so powerful?
The song, more like spoken word than rock n' roll, tells the story of a young man named Sue who has had to deal with ridicule and shame his entire life. The only thing his deadbeat dad ever did for him was give him that awful name before abandoning the family to fend for itself. Sue grew up being picked on constantly for his girly name and as a result became a ruthless fighter in order to defend himself against the harassment. Every year that passed, he swore ever more fiercely that he would one day find that weasel who named him Sue—his father—and kill him.
Well, Sue "grew up tough and grew up mean," and one night he found himself in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, looking around for a place to grab a beer. He walks into the nearest bar, only to discover his very own father playing poker and hanging with the locals. As predicted, Sue greets his father with quite possibly the best three sentences in songwriting history, "My name is Sue. How do you do? Now you're gonna die!"
Listen to the recording. Cash really sells it.
The next scene depicts the two men grappling and snarling like a couple of wild animals until, evenly matched, they take a breather and the father smiles at his son. He explains that he named him Sue because he knew that he was not going to be around to raise his son as a strong man. By giving him such a feminine name, his father ensured that Sue would grow up tough as steel because he'd constantly have to defend his honor and fight for respect. Upon hearing this, Sue loses the heart to kill his father and instead feels a strange tenderness for this man who left him so long ago. How sweet. But Silverstein still ends the song on an ironic note, where the speaker swears that even though he no longer hates his father, he'll name his future son "any damn thing but Sue!"
On the surface, a song about a boy named Sue seems silly, hardly the kind of tune to leave a listener with any kind of great epiphany. However, when people hear this song for the first time, they usually break out in a big grin during the verse where the father explains himself, touched by the truth in the lyrics and the power of the father's lesson:
Son this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn't be there to help ya along
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong
This song is all about identity. From the earliest written records, mankind has recorded stories that revolve around the importance of names and identity. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, Adam spends most of his time naming the animals that God has created and giving them a specific identity that we now associate with those names.
We could go into a lengthy discussion of Saussure and Lacan's theories about signifiers and signified, but that probably fits better in a college philosophy course. The basic idea is this: a name is just a jumble of words that does not have any real meaning until applied to a specific entity upon which the concept of the name can be constructed. We can look at the word "lion" and an image of a big cat with a mane springs to mind, but only because we have previously been exposed to images of the signified idea of "lion" which those four letters—the signifier—represent.
So, what's in a name? "A Boy Named Sue" shows us just how much our world depends upon names and their associated meanings. Like looking at the word "red" written in green, a boy with the name Sue just doesn't make sense to someone who has grown up conditioned in our gendered, binary culture where every word carries a specific meaning. Silverstein pokes fun at the human insistence to define each other based on names and titles. His character Sue proves that a name, while a useful marker, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the people we meet.
In his article A Boy Named Sue and A Theory of Names, J. Marion Tierney discusses how being given a bad or unusual name has impacted people growing up in America, and how once we get past someone's name and start seeing him for who he truly is, the name is rendered irrelevant. He includes a quote from Dr. Ford, a developmental psychologist at George Mason University:
Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person. Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance. (Source)
Although some studies show that children with unusual or humorous names receive lower grades in school and are more likely to be psychiatric patients as adults, Tierney also found many studies which suggest that these kids were not destined for any bigger problems than the average child. In fact, sometimes having a weird name did make them stronger. Check out this quote from Dr. Cleveland Kent Evans, professor at Bellevue University, and psychologist and former president at the American Names Society:
Researchers have studied men with cross-gender names like Leslie. They haven't found anything negative—no psychological or social problems—or any correlations with either masculinity or effeminacy. But they have found one major positive factor: a better sense of self-control. It's not that you fight more, but that you learn how to let stuff roll off your back. (Source)
After a roaring reception at San Quentin, "A Boy Named Sue" climbed to #2 on the Billboard 100 and stayed there for three weeks; it was Cash's biggest hit. What started out as a little twinkle in Shel Silverstein's eye was transformed by Johnny's trademark baritone into one of the greatest country records of the twentieth century, and the poignant story of a boy named Sue, just like the opus of Silverstein's poetry, continues to tug at the heartstrings of folks old and young to this very day.