A Boy Named Sue

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"A Boy Named Sue"
Single by Johnny Cash
from the album At San Quentin
B-side "San Quentin"
Released July 26, 1969
Format 7"
Recorded February 24, 1969
Genre Country
Talking blues
Comedy
Length 3:44
Label Columbia
Writer(s) Shel Silverstein
Producer(s) Bob Johnston
Certification
Audio sample
file info · help
Johnny Cash singles chronology
"Daddy Sang Bass"
(1968)
"A Boy Named Sue"
(1969)
"Get Rhythm"
(1969)
"Boy Named Sue"
Single by Shel Silverstein
from the album Boy Named Sue (and His Other Country Songs)
B-side "Somebody Stole My Rib"
Released 1969
Format 7" single
Label RCA
Producer(s) Chet Atkins, Felton Jarvis

"A Boy Named Sue" is a poem by Shel Silverstein that has been made popular by Johnny Cash. Cash was at the height of his popularity when he recorded the song live at California's San Quentin State Prison at a concert on February 24, 1969. The concert was filmed by Granada Television for later television broadcast. The audio of the concert was later released on Cash's At San Quentin album. Cash also performed the song (with comical variations on the original performance) in December 1969 at Madison Square Garden. The song became Cash's biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and his only top ten single there, spending three weeks at #2 in 1969, held out of the top spot by Honky Tonk Women by The Rolling Stones. The track also topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks charts that same year and was certified Gold on August 14, 1969 by the RIAA.

Shel Silverstein's recording was released the same year as "Boy Named Sue", a single to the album Boy Named Sue (and His Other Country Songs), produced by Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis.[1][2]

Plot[edit]

The song tells the tale of a young man's quest for revenge on a father who abandoned him at 3 years of age and whose only contribution to his entire life was naming him Sue, commonly a feminine name, which results in the young man suffering from ridicule and harassment by everyone he meets in his travels. Because of this, Sue grows up tough, mean and smartens up very quickly, though he frequently relocates due to the shame his name gives him. Angered by the embarrassment and abuse that he endures in his life, he swears that he will find and kill his father for giving him "that awful name."

Sue later locates his father at a Gatlinburg, Tennessee, tavern during the middle of a summer season and confronts him by saying, "My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you're gonna die!" This results in a vicious brawl that spills outdoors into a muddy street. After the two have beaten each other almost senseless, Sue's father admits that he is "the son of a bitch" that named him Sue and explains that the name was given as an act of love. Because Sue's father knew that he would not be there for his son, he gave him the name to make sure that he grew up strong. Learning this, Sue forgives his father and they reconcile. With his lesson learned, Sue closes the song with a promise to name his son "Bill or George, any damn thing but Sue! I still hate that name!"

Structure[edit]

The song has an unusual A-A-B-C-C-B rhyme scheme, broken only to mark the midpoint and ending, and is full of vivid images such as "he kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile". The song is performed mostly in the speech-like style of talking blues rather than conventional singing.[3]

Censorship[edit]

With public decorum being more conservative in America when the song was released in the 1960s, the term "son of a bitch" in the line "I'm the son of a bitch that named you Sue!" was censored in the radio version and the final line was edited to remove the word "damn". Both the edited and unedited versions are available on various albums and compilations.

Inspiration[edit]

The core story of the song was inspired by humorist Jean Shepherd, a close friend of Shel Silverstein, who was often taunted as a child because of his feminine-sounding name.[4]

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.[5]

In his autobiography, Cash wrote that he had just received the song and only read over it a couple of times. It was included in that concert to try it out—he did not know the words and on the filmed recording he can be seen regularly referring to a piece of paper. Cash was surprised at how well the song went over with the audience.[6] The rough, spontaneous performance with sparse accompaniment was included in the Johnny Cash At San Quentin album, ultimately becoming one of Cash's biggest hits. Cash also performed it on his own musical variety show, ending the song with the line, "And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him...John Carter Cash", referencing to his newborn son.

According to Shel Silverstein's biographer Mitch Myers, it was June Carter Cash who encouraged her husband to perform the song. Silverstein introduced it to them at what they called a "Guitar Pull," where musicians would pass a guitar around and play their songs.

Silverstein later wrote a follow-up named "The Father of a Boy Named Sue" on his 1978 Songs and Stories in which he tells the old man's point of view of the story.

Chart performance (Johnny Cash version)[edit]

Chart (1969) Peak
position
U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles 1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 2
U.S. Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks 1
Canadian RPM Country Tracks 1
Canadian RPM Top Singles 3
Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary Tracks 1
Irish Singles Chart 3
U.K. Singles Chart 4
Dutch Top 40 13
Preceded by
"Workin' Man Blues"
by Merle Haggard
Billboard Hot Country Singles
number-one single

August 23 – September 20, 1969
Succeeded by
"Tall Dark Stranger"
by Buck Owens
Preceded by
"Canadian Pacific"
by George Hamilton IV
RPM Country Tracks
number-one single

August 23 – September 13, 1969
Succeeded by
"True Grit"
by Glen Campbell
Preceded by
"In the Year 2525" by Zager & Evans
Billboard Easy Listening Singles number-one single
August 30, 1969 (2 weeks)
Succeeded by
"I'll Never Fall in Love Again" by Tom Jones

Impact on popular culture[edit]

The gender-bending implications of the title have been adapted to explore issues of sex and gender, another use of the popular song title that goes beyond its original scope. The 2001 documentary A Boy Named Sue features a transgender protagonist and uses the song in the soundtrack. A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music is the title of a 2004 book about the role of the gender in American country music.[7]

In the film Swingers, one of the male characters is named Sue. The name is explained by another character by saying, "his dad was a big Johnny Cash fan."

"A Boy Named Sue" is referenced in the Red Hot Chili Peppers songs "One Big Mob" and "Save This Lady."

In the Dexter's Laboratory episode A Boy Named Sue Mandark recalls through his infancy and early childhood when his Hippy parents named him Susan and how he discovered his manhood by science.

The Stone Temple Pilots' song 'Crackerman' references 'A Boy Named Sue' in the second verse.

Wyrd Miniatures a hobby company, produces a male Outcast model named Sue for their Malifaux miniature skirmish game.

External Links[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Boy Named Sue (and His Other Country Songs) at Discogs (1969 Shel Silverstein album)
  2. ^ http://dmdb.org/discographies/shel.disco.html Shel Silverstein discography
  3. ^ A Boy Named Sue, YouTube.com
  4. ^ Bergmann, Eugene B.: Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, 2005.
  5. ^ "Johnny Cash Is Indebted to a Judge Named Sue." The New York Times, July 12, 1970, p. 66.
  6. ^ Cash, Johnny: Cash: The Autobiography, 1997
  7. ^ Kristine M. McCusker, Diane Pecknold (2004) A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music, University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 1-57806-678-6