The Beloved Children's Poet Who Wrote a Johnny Cash Bop
Cash's surprise hit, recorded at San Quentin State Prison in 1969, captures one of country music's best poetic turns.
When I first started teaching poetry workshops at the university level, I would ask students to fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of the course in order to get to know them. Which poets do you like to read? I’d ask, sometimes asking them for “dead poets” and “living poets.” Sometimes their answers surprised me with their erudition: young fans of Larkin and Komunyakaa. Others delighted me with their unexpected choices, like rapper Eazy E. But mainly the students reported what I already knew: they didn’t know many poets, but they knew they wanted to be one.
But one poet came up again and again on even the greenest students’ questionnaires: Shel Silverstein. Silverstein is what you might call a children’s poet if you’re being as ungenerous as I used to be. In truth, he was a writer, poet, playwright, cartoonist, and an important part of American culture, one who is able to speak to adults and children alike because he understood that children are adults in training and adults are just grown-up children.
I read and enjoyed Silverstein as a young person, even going so far as to memorize (then botch) his poem, “Sick,” for a talent show in third grade. But I used to chuckle when I saw his name on my students’ papers, my suspicion that they had not yet read very many poets confirmed. But I stopped asking this particular question because I realized that it was coming from a place of gatekeeping and privilege, and from a limited view of who “counted” as a poet in my earliest days as a teacher.
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In truth, Silverstein’s poetry had a much bigger impact on popular culture overall than I was even aware of. When I learned on NPR the other day that Shel Silverstein wrote a Johnny Cash classic that won a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1970, I shouted, audibly, to no one in particular, “What?!”
But it quickly dawned on me: of course Shel Silverstein wrote “A Boy Named Sue.” It’s funny and narrative and clever and a little bit weird, just like Silverstein’s poems for children. Revisiting this song allows us to see how skillful Silverstein was as a writer and poet, even when someone else is singing his words.
Silverstein and “Sue”
Shel Silverstein wrote numerous country songs in addition to plays, screenplays, and, of course, poetry. “A Boy Named Sue” was a surprise hit for Cash, whose team had figured that other songs on the album would take off after its release. But the story of a boy with a feminine name who vows to kill the man who bestowed it on him has had enduring power, and I would lay much of that success at the feet of poet-songwriter Silverstein.
Recorded at San Quentin State Prison in 1969 for Cash’s At San Quentin album, “A Boy Named Sue” was performed live on stage for the very first time during this session. I love the San Quentin version of the song because you can hear the laughter and hollering of the audience at key moments. And, most interestingly, you can hear the audience audibly respond to what I would call a poetic “turn” near the end of the song.
And he said, “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 you along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
And I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s that name that helped to make you strong.”
The speaker of the song hates his name, Sue, but learns that his father gave it to him precisely because he knew he wouldn’t be around to raise him and make him strong. And as it turns out, the name really did make him strong. It’s a perverse idea, but it has a sweet, old-timey logic to it.
Silverstein’s work is so enduring because of its refusal to patronize or coddle the children it intends to engage.
A poet wrote this song, and I’d say this shift qualifies as a poetic turn: a shift in the argument, emotional register, perspective, or tone of a poem. (I’ve written about turns and voltas in posts about sonnets at PopPoetry before.)
At this point in “A Boy Named Sue,” just after the turn, you can hear the audience react with surprise and interest. “Yeah!” Cash says, validating their response to the lyrics. Listen in at about 2:41 in the video above to hear it. Cash continues:
He said, “Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do
But y’oughta thank me before I die
For the gravel in yer guts and the spit in yer eye
’Cause I’m the son of a bitch that named you Sue.”
What could I do? What could I do?
I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
I called him my Pa, and he called me his son
And I come away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then
Every time I try and every time I win
And if I ever have a boy, I think I’m gonna name him—
Bill or George any damn thing but Sue!
I still hate that name!
So much poetry is encountered in silence, so it’s wonderful to hear an audience react to a poetic turn like this one.
“A Boy Named Sue” would go on to become one of Cash’s best-loved songs, and he has a poet to thank for it. Cash admired Silverstein greatly, as you can see from the poet’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970.
Silverstein on Silverstein
Silverstein was a true Renaissance man who was skilled at every creative endeavor he touched. And his writing for children is so enduring because of its refusal to patronize or coddle the children it intends to engage. In this fascinating interview with Studs Terkel, Silverstein laments the “Disneyfication” of children’s fairytales and stories and his own desire to write for children in a way that is honest about the world they will come to inhabit.
But Silverstein did not aspire to be a children’s poet or a poet of any kind and was reportedly urged by his friends and an agent to do so. This inclination that Silverstein would be good at writing for children turned out to be correct: Silverstein’s most famous work, Where the Sidewalk Ends, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019 and is still an enduring classic.
Silverstein has said that he wasn’t well-versed in poetry himself and therefore felt that he could develop his own unique style and voice. Without rigid models to emulate, he became the strange, narrative, utterly unique poet that we love and our children love.
I wouldn’t recommend that aspiring poets swear off reading other writers: but I do think that there is a real value in encouraging young writers to 1) read whoever the hell they want and 2) write however the hell they want, regardless of what we, as their teachers, feel that good writing is. They will get there if they read and write and keep engaging with the world as a creative person. And as creative writing classrooms begin to move away from imitation as a major mode of learning, we ought to continue to think about the role that reading plays or should play in their education.
If you love Silverstein, your child loves Silverstein, or your students love Silverstein, give him another look. His skillful turns, loads of heart, and quirky sense of the place of poetry in the lives of young people make him worthy of our continued admiration, no matter his audience or his medium.