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Monday, April 27, 2009

Johnny Cash - A boy named Sue

"A Boy Named Sue" is a country song, written by Shel Silverstein and popularly sung by Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash was at the height of his popularity when he recorded this song live at San Quentin State Prison in California. The concert was recorded for broadcast by Granada Television on February 24, 1969 and for the Johnny Cash At San Quentin album. The song became Cash's biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, spending three weeks at #2 in 1969; it also topped the country music and adult contemporary charts that same year.

Plot and reaction

It tells the preposterous yet moving tale of a young man's quest for revenge on an absent father whose only contribution to his entire life was naming him Sue, commonly a feminine name. The name was the cause of endless ridicule as the young man was growing up. As the years went on, Sue grew big, strong and fearsome from all the fights he got into with bullies.

At the climax of the song, Sue finds and confronts his father, and the two get into a vicious brawl. After the two have beaten each other almost senseless, Sue's father admits that the name was given to him as an act of love: because he knew he would not be there for his son, Sue's father gave him that name to make sure that he grew up strong. Learning this, Sue forgives his father and they have an emotional reconciliation.

With his lesson learned, Sue closes the song with an announcement: "And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him . . . Bill or George, any damn thing but Sue! I still hate that name!"

The song has an unusual A-A-C B-B-C rhyme scheme, broken only to mark the dramatic midpoint and comic ending, and is full of vivid images such as "he kicked like a mule and bit like a crocodile". The song is mostly recitation rather than conventional singing.

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


Late 1960s public decorum being what it was, 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 take out the "damn". Both the edited and unedited versions are available on various CDs.


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.

The title might 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 the Scopes Trial. Sue was named after his mother who died after giving birth to him.[4] However, while this may have inspired Silverstein to write the poem, there may have been another reason why Johnny Cash recorded it. Johnny Cash was a fan of popular western novelist, Zane Grey, whose first name at birth was "Pearl".

In his autobiography [5] 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 didn't know the words. (He can be seen on the video regularly referring to a piece of paper.) He was surprised at how well the song went over with the audience – which is why this rough, spontaneous performance with sparse accompaniment was included in the Johnny Cash At San Quentin album, ultimately becoming one of Cash's biggest hits.

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