Today’s my dad’s birthday, born 1927. And today’s song dates from the year I turned 10. Back there on Johnny Cash’s birthday in the dead of winter—February—I posted about Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and how I remembered hearing that song for the first time that summer when my dad got that album and the San Quentin album. So this is Side Two of that, I guess.
“A Boy Named Sue,” written by Shel Silverstein—he of The Giving Tree fame—is what you might call a novelty song. It’s a narrative song in the tradition of those “gunslinger ballads” by Marty Robbins, and those tales of American wit and courage by Johnny Horton, which we loved as kids in our house. Silverstein’s song, though, takes the idea of those kinds of tales and warps it with humor and very colorful language—including expletives that were bleeped on the radio.
I chose the song for today because it’s a song about a father-son relationship. Probably if my dad were still alive, I would pick something like Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” which I always listened to with a strong sense of identification—“if they were right, then I’d agree, but it’s them they know, not me, and I know that I have to go away, I know I have to go.” It’s one of those generation gap songs where the patient dad tries to tell the young’un he don’t know what’s what and the kid has to get dad to realize he’s just too out of touch to understand. I’ve always loved the song and, in fact, Johnny Cash covered it, with Fiona Apple. But his version was done when he was a bit too old and it’s not fully developed, more like a demo.
On the other hand, “A Boy Named Sue,” which became Johnny’s biggest selling single, contains the lines: “I got all choked up and I threw down my gun / And I called him my paw and he called me his son / And I come away with a different point of view.” In all its wonderfully vivid storytelling—and that great A-A-B-C-C-B rhyme scheme—the song creates a quest for a mangy dog of a dad who gave his son an offending first name and will pay for it, should they ever meet. And of course they do. But the take-away is that the father had a reason for what he did that was actually in the best interests of his kid, a kid he abandoned at the age of 3. And just when you think it’s going to go a complete 180 and the singer is going to see the light and continue the tradition—by doing for his son what his dad did for him—he bursts out that he would still never name his son “Sue.”
In the late Sixties, and where I’m from, the point of the name “Sue” was obvious enough—as it is when Johnny sings it on the album to a group of incarcerated men who love the song, hearing it for the first time (in fact it’s one of the first times Cash sang it in public and he’s using a lyric sheet as a prompt). The slur of effeminancy, the song implies, is enough to make any red-blooded male defend his mainliness by kicking the crap out of anyone who thinks “a boy named Sue” has to be—as they used to say—a “creampuff.” And so the song is fitting too, on my dad’s birthday, because he was a Marine and a football player, and mechanical whizz, who fathered six kids and had four grandkids, and didn’t live to see the first great-grandkid. A manly man, you’d have to say. So the song, today, is a tip of the hat to the old man who did what he could, much as the absentee dad in the song did.
Having known the song since I was a kid, there’s still lines in it I get a real kick out of—such as “kickin’ and gougin’ in the mud and the blood and the beer.” And “I knew that snake was my own sweet dad / From a worn-out picture that my mother had.” And “there at a table, dealin’ stud / Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me Sue.” Or: “Some gal would start gigglin’ and I’d get red / And some guy would laugh and I’d bust his head / I tell you, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.” And “he didn't leave much to ma and me / 'Cept this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.”
Silverstein’s lyrics bounce the way unforgettable lyrics often do—and the way classic American tales do (“Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”), and Cash, in talkin' blues style, swaggers his way through with just the right manly gruffness that almost switches to tenderness at the close. No one who has heard the song—especially when they were young—will ever forget his emphatic cry: “My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you’re gonna die!”
I should say too, on the subject of whatever gets handed-on, male to male, down the chain of command of generational change, that the song, when it came on the playlist while driving to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota this summer, united me, my stepson—who I played the song for as a kid—and his eldest son as one of the few songs we heard on the trip that we all knew immediately and liked more or less equally.
This world is rough / And if a man's gonna make it, he's got to be tough.