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For the most part, Johnny Cash's songs—especially his most famous ones—are very simple in their melodic structure. "A Boy Named Sue" is especially indicative of this trend, with a steady repetition of G - C - D - G, in the key of G Major.
Melody aside, with "A Boy Named Sue," the music comes secondary to the lyrics. It sounds like something you would hear while sitting around a campfire on the open plains: a man telling a story to his buddies while someone just happens to be picking out chords on his guitar in the background. The music provides the stage for "A Boy Named Sue," but the lyrics are always the main event.
What might jump out more than anything from the audio track is actually the crowd reaction, as San Quentin's prisoners laugh and jeer with each punchline throughout the song. Hearing the crowd response puts us right there in that room with Johnny and the inmates. More rooted in the older tradition of oral culture than the modern concept of rock and roll, "A Boy Named Sue" is a narrative set to music, and not the other way around. During Cash's long career, he performed songs that could be considered folk, rock, gospel, and blues...but this song is definitely country.
Growing up in a hard-working, cotton-farming family in Arkansas in the wake of the Great Depression, Johnny Cash's humble origins helped shape the charismatic man he later became: the all-American boy who had to struggle with his own demons, even while taking pity on all other suffering people, including Native Americans and prisoners.
After a brief stint sweeping floors in an auto factory after high school, Cash enlisted in the Air Force and served time in Landsberg, Germany. It was during this period that he formed his first band and began songwriting. However, it wasn't until over a decade later, in the late '60s, that his career reached epic heights with the popularity of his prison tour and subsequent albums. When we think of the music of the '60s these days, Johnny Cash may not be the first artist that we think of. Maybe it's because his rough and edgy mix of country, rock, and American folk music had little resemblance to the psychedelic pop rock acts from England (think the Beatles or the Rolling Stones) that we all associate with the decade of LSD and flower power.
Growing up in a hard-working, farming family in the American South groomed a much different performer than the young lads from across the pond who changed rock and roll. But we need to keep in mind that the late 1960s marked the zenith of Johnny Cash's decades-long musical journey, and his prison tours produced some of the most influential and critically-acclaimed albums of the 20th century.
At the same time, Cash was working to pull himself out of the mess he'd made of his personal life in the earlier part of the decade to get his career back on track. He became the poster child for perseverance, and it was his fighting spirit and refusal to back down that kept him going through even his darkest hours:
Self-esteem and perseverance and confidence are all important, but the first thing is to know what you want to do. Set that goal out there and never lose sight of it, and work toward it. And know that there are going to be byways and sidetracks, but keep persevering and keep on, and do what you know that you want to do. (Source)
Cash's life during the '60s was one of enormous transition and growth. He'd just emerged from a period of serious drug abuse and married June Carter, the woman who would change his life forever:
The big thing about the music in my life, we shared it. We have a sharing marriage, and we share the road, we share the bedroom, we share the backstage, onstage, we share the music, the feeling, and the emotion, and the joy of it, you know. And the pain and the sadness of it. We share the love of our children. It would be terribly lonely not to have someone to share those things with me. And she's not only a lady who I share my life with, but she may have been the person responsible for my still being alive. She and God. Because she came along at a time in my life that I was on self-destruct, and she saw what I was doing to myself and she helped bring me back up out of it. And we've fought and worked hard to keep our feet on the ground since then. But like I say, today is a good day. (Source)
In some ways, in fact, Cash's life and music were more fully in tune with the social upheaval of the decade than the more musically adventurous work of people like Jimi Hendrix. Rather than focus on sonic experimentation, Cash chose instead to explore one of the major themes of the decade: the battle for rights and freedoms for the disenfranchised. To Johnny Cash, that meant prisoners.
Ask the average Johnny Cash fan if they're 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's 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 like "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're 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's 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, though, 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, though, he was way cooler. 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. (Source)
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?