"A Boy Named Sue": Who Wrote That Song?

Following up on yesterday's post about the Tokens Show in Dayton just a historical note about a song Lee Camp sang during the show and Ed Larson's commentary about the origins of that song.

The song in question is "A Boy Named Sue," popularized by Johnny Cash and first sung by Cash on the At San Quentin album.

Now while it seems foolish for a psychologist to correct a Pulitzer-prize winning historian on a matter of history, I do want to comment on the history Ed gave about the song "A Boy Named Sue." I know a bit about Cash in light of the research I did for my recent The Theology of Johnny Cash series.

Here are the lyrics to the story-song "A Boy Named Sue":
Well, my daddy left home when I was three,
and he didn't leave much to Ma and me,
just this old guitar and a bottle of booze.
Now I don't blame him because he run and hid,
but the meanest thing that he ever did was
before he left he went and named me Sue.

Well, he must have thought it was quite a joke,
and it got lots of laughs from a lot of folks,
it seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle 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.

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean.
My fist got hard and my wits got keen.
Roamed from town to town to hide my shame,
but I made me a vow to the moon and the stars,
I'd search the honky-tonks and bars and kill
that man that gave me that awful name.

But it was Gatlinburg in mid July and I had
just hit town and my throat was dry.
I'd thought I'd stop and have myself a brew.
At an old saloon in a street of mud
and at a table dealing stud sat the dirty,
mangy dog that named me Sue.

Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
from a worn-out picture that my mother had
and I knew the scar on his cheek and his evil eye.
He was big and bent and gray and old
and I looked at him and my blood ran cold,
and I said, "My name is Sue. How do you do?
Now you're gonna die." Yeah, that's what I told him.

Well, I hit him right between the eyes and he went down
but to my surprise he came up with a knife
and cut off a piece of my ear. But I busted a chair
right across his teeth. And we crashed through
the wall and into the street kicking and a-gouging
in the mud and the blood and the beer.

I tell you I've fought tougher men but I really can't remember when.
He kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile.
I heard him laughin' and then I heard him cussin',
he went for his gun and I pulled mine first.
He stood there looking at me and I saw him smile.

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 gave you that name and I said 'Goodbye'.
I knew you'd have to get tough or die. And it's
that name that helped to make you strong."

Yeah, he said, "Now you have just fought one
helluva fight, and I know you hate me and you've
got the right to kill me now and I wouldn't blame you
if you do. But you ought to thank me
before I die for the gravel in your guts and the spit
in your eye because I'm the nut that named you Sue."
Yeah, what could I do? What could I do?

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun,
called him pa and he called me a son,
and I came away with a different point of view
and I think about him now and then.
Every time I tried, every time I win and if I
ever have a son I think I am gonna name him
Bill or George - anything but Sue. 
You can watch Cash performing the song at San Quentin here.

During the show Ed said that "A Boy Named Sue" was written by Johnny Cash, and was inspired by his association with Sue K. Hicks, an attorney who was a friend of John Scopes and who agreed to be a prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Sue Hicks was named after his mother who died after giving birth to him.

However, "A Boy Named Sue" wasn't written by Johnny Cash.

"A Boy Named Sue" was a poem written by Shel Silverstein, and was also released in 1969 (the same year as Cash's At San Quentin) on Silverstein's album Boy Named Sue (and His Other Country Songs).

Who inspired Shel Silverstein's poem? Eugene Bergmann argues that the song was inspired by humorist Jean Shepherd, who was a close friend of Silverstein's. In an interview in 1965 Jean Shepherd shared this about how this feminine-sounding name affected his development in life:
You know how it felt to grow up all of your life, with the name Jean? Spelled with a J? Listen, I fist-fought my way through every grade in school. How do you think I go so aggressive?
If the song wasn't written by Cash or inspired by Cash's association with the Sue Hicks from the Scopes Monkey Trial how did Cash come across the song?

According to Robert Hilburn's recent biography, Cash was told about the song lyrics by Don Davis, a music producer and family friend (Davis was married to Anita Carter, sister of June Carter Cash). Don felt the lyrics would make a great song for the upcoming San Quentin concert as Cash had had previous success using lyrics from a Silverstein poem at the prior Folsom prison concert. This was "25 Minutes to Go," a Silverstein poem that became the lyrics for a highlight song on the At Folsom Prison album.

Like with Folsom, maybe some lyrics from Silverstein could make another hit for the San Quentin concert?

But Cash didn't take the lyrics with him to San Quentin. Cash liked the quirky story of the song but left it behind to record later when he got back from San Quentin.

But June Carter threw the lyrics onto a stack of material that Johnny was taking with him to the prison concert. During rehearsals Cash pulled out the lyrics and decided to add the song to the show. The musicians worked out a simple and rough accompaniment, playing the song live for the first time before before the inmates of San Quentin.

And the result?

"A Boy Named Sue" became one of Cash's biggest hits.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

11 thoughts on “"A Boy Named Sue": Who Wrote That Song?”

  1. What an awesome story! Thanks for sharing. One of my favorite songs on one of my favorite albums. I have my dad's original vinyl copy - it's a treasure.

  2. According to Michael Streissguth's biography (2006), Cash started learning the song, spilling copious amounts of coffee over Silverstein's lyrics, at O'Hare Airport as he waited for his connection to San Francisco; so it was in Chicago, not at San Quentin, that Cash decided to sing the song. But then, as we know from stories about the King (Jesus, not Elvis - though no doubt Elvis too), they have a way of getting altered in the telling. Perhaps someday someone will produce a synopsis of the extant Cash biographies so that scholars and aficionados can do a bit of redaction criticism. Unless, of course, one of the biographies turns out to be inerrant.

  3. I was going through some stuff getting ready for the start of school and found two Shel Silverstein books. "Falling Up" and "Where the Sidewalk Ends." Maybe I need to read some Shel Silverstein. Or maybe its just coincidence?

  4. So, what inspired the weirdly complicated fake story told at the show? (The show sounds really cool, it's just confusing that something like this, which is so easily verifiable in the age of Google, would go unnoticed by the speaker.)

  5. Well, because I believe Johnny Cash floated an alternative history and origin of the song. The Wikipedia article notes the following:

    "The title might also have been inspired by the male attorney Sue K. Hicks of Madisonville, Tennessee, a friend of John Scopes who agreed to be a prosecutor in what was to become known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial". Sue was named after his mother who died after giving birth to him."

    The article cites this NYT article as the source:

    "Johnny Cash Is Indebted to a Judge Named Sue." The New York Times, July 12, 1970, p. 66.

  6. That article is behind a NYT paywall here:

    http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0E17FD3F5C1A7493C0A8178CD85F448785F9

    Perhaps a reader with NYT access can read the artilce and help us get to the bottom of this mystery.

  7. Original vinyl of At San Quentin? Sweet!

    Incidentally, I have plans to move into the vinyl world saving some money for a record player and to purchase a starting collection...of Johnny Cash.

  8. I have a Crosley Keepsake Deluxe, which I dearly love. http://www.crosleyradio.com/Turntables.


    Vinyl is the best value out there - I recently got an original 1962 Columbia Bob Dylan studio album for $12 at my local record store. 52 years old and it plays perfectly! And thanks to my Crosley I burned it to an MP3 to enjoy everywhere.

  9. Oh, that's what those cartoons were about. Thanks for clearing that up!

  10. It's amazing that the very worst thing you could do, the thing that deserves homicide as a response, is to call a man a girl.

  11. There is a live album "At Madison Square Garden" recorded December 1969, where after singing the song Cash says"We do that song for Mr. Shel Silverstein who wrote it, right here, Stand up. See his head shining, that;s him, he wrote that song." No, I don't have the vinyl. Only the bits and bytes.

Leave a Reply