A Boy Named Sue was a popular folk-country song of the 1960s.
It may be easy to find a Boy Named Sue these days. But in the 60s, the title left people wondering!
So, who exactly is the boy named Sue? Did they ever exist?
Let’s find out!
Who Originally Wrote A Boy Named Sue?
Poet, singer, and author Shel Silverstein wrote A Boy Named Sue. Silverstein was a gifted Renaissance man. He was an avid learner, somehow mastering practically every artistic endeavor he tried.
At his core, though, Silverstein was a wordsmith. He’s most well known for his children’s books The Giving Tree and Where The Sidewalk Ends.
Shel Silverstein was born in Chicago in 1930. His writing and drawing started in his youth when he couldn’t get attention from girls or play any sports. His hobbies quickly became his passion and his life’s devotion.
Although he never married, he fathered two children and dedicated his 1981 book A Light In The Attic to his daughter Shoshanna.
With cosmic revenge for his lackluster youth, Silverstein became a leading cartoonist for Playboy Magazine in 1957. He was a ladies’ man with an incredible sense of humor. He also illustrated each of his children’s books.
The Giving Tree, published in 1964, has sold over 10 million copies. It’s one of the National Education Association’s top picks by both teachers and students.
Silverstein also wrote over 100 one-act plays, which have been performed across the United States since 1959. He wrote stories for the 70s television project Free To Be You and Me. His songs have been in films such as Thelma & Louise and Almost Famous.
How does one person have the time? Incredible!
Who First Recorded A Boy Named Sue?
Shel Silverstein first recorded A Boy Named Sue on December 14th, 1968. It was released in 1969 on Silverstein’s album Boy Named Sue (And His Other Country Songs.)
Shel began recording music in the late 50s and released over a dozen studio albums. He also composed music for film soundtracks and audio poems.
Silverstein won Grammys for A Boy Named Sue in 1970 and 1984 for his audio recording of Where The Sidewalk Ends. The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame posthumously inducted him in 2002 and the Chicago Literary Hall Of Fame in 2014.
So, Who Was the Boy Named Sue?
The inspiration for A Boy Named Sue came from Jean Shepard. Shepard was a humorist, actor, and radio host most known for his narration in the film A Christmas Story. He was good friends with Silverstein.
Apparently, Mr. Shepard got teased relentlessly as a kid for having “a girl’s name.” That’s not surprising for a boy raised in the 1930s. Shepard fist-fought his way through school to get past the bullies.
As both men had a great sense of humor, it’s no wonder Silverstein turned the story into a song.
The lyrics describe a man angry at his father for leaving his family and calling him Sue. The man grows up tough and seeks to kill his dad.
Talk about sweet revenge!
But in the end, father and son meet, and the angry man realizes his dad named him so to make him a survivor. They make amends, though the son vows never to name his boy Sue!
What’s the Most Popular Version of A Boy Named Sue?
Johnny Cash performed and recorded the most popular version of A Boy Named Sue in 1969. He first played it live as part of his February 25 concert at San Quentin State Prison. The album, At San Quentin, and the single for A Boy Named Sure were released that summer.
Johnny Cash is a famous outlaw country musician. His most popular singles include I Walk The Line, Ring Of Fire, and Folsom Prison Blues. In addition, he released two albums recorded at State Prisons. The first, the 1968 live album At Folsom Prison, did so well that he released At San Quentin one year later.
Cash advocated for prison reform, believing everyone deserves a chance at redemption. He quietly toured the prison circuit for almost 30 years, playing for free and taking time to meet the inmates.
Although Cash’s actual time spent in the slammer was for being drunk and disorderly, the tours certainly helped his bad-boy reputation. But they also paired well with his strong sense of faith. Cash grew up in rural Arkansas, son of a poor family of sharecroppers. Gospel music and radio were his escape route out of his family’s hard times until he joined the Air Force in 1950.
Cash worked part-time jobs after returning home in the mid-50s until releasing his first album in 1957. His singles Cry! Cry! Cry! and I Walk The Line came out earlier and secured Cash’s career as a country singer. He released dozens of records and is the recipient of countless awards. The Man in Black remains a legend to this day.
How Did Cash Find Sue?
Before televisions were in everyone’s home, playing music with friends was a regular pastime. It was common in the 40s and 50s to invite fellow musicians to your house to pass the guitar around and jam on a Saturday night.
Johnny and June Cash were at one of these guitar pulls when they heard Shel sing A Boy Named Sue. June loved it and thought it was a perfect song for her husband to sing.
Cash brought the lyrics to his 1969 gig at San Quentin. He wasn’t sure if he’d play the song or not. But once he got the scribbled lyrics out, the band started to improvise, and the audience loved it. The performance is so authentic that you can hear Cash chuckle as he sings the lyrics.
A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash was so popular that it went Gold before hitting #1 on the country charts. It charted within the top 5 in the US, UK, Canada, and Ireland.
An Impactful Hit
A Boy Named Sue is such an excellent song. Written by a literary genius and made famous by the Man in Black, it’s had a huge cultural impact. In fact, the number continues to be used to explore gender and non-conformity issues. The lyrics are hilariously clever, and Cash’s delivery is one of a kind.
Have you read the lyrics to A Boy Named Sue? What are your thoughts?