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The Story Behind The Song: Johnny Cash's novel brilliance on 'A Boy Named Sue'

The image of Johnny Cash as The Man In Black perpetuates the vision of a very serious individual. While, of course, Cash made good on that promise on countless occasions across his career, often acting as a working-class lightning rod, charged up, sharpened and thrust into the gut of the establishment. However, that was only one side of the story. In truth, Johnny Cash has always had a lighter side too.

Whether it was the time he tried to fight an ostrich and lost, when he broke down a wall in his hotel room to order to speak to his friend Carl Perkins, or when he dueted with Muppets legend Miss Piggy — Cash can have a laugh. There is one song from which we gather up an immeasurable sense of his incandescent humour, and that’s on ‘A Boy Named Sue’.

As many children did during the depression, Johnny Cash had a brutal upbringing. A childhood that relied heavily on the presence of a survival instinct, Cash may have had a strained relationship with his parents, but at least he can be happy that he was never named “Sue”, as is the subject of his classic 1958 track.

Written by Shel Silverstein, who would go on to pen songs for Dr Hook, Cash took this track to a whole new level. The song centres on the unique story of a father naming his son Sue. Taking on Cash’s style of talking blues, he hilariously chronicles the difficulty of living with such a name, including the moment of realisation that being named Sue had toughened him up. Though he ends the song with a resolution: “If I ever have a boy, I’ll name him Bill or George or Frank, anything but Sue – I hate that name”.

The song was originally recorded as part of Cash’s unique appearance at San Quentin prison. Shel Silverstein’s nephew, Mitch Myers, told Songfacts of how Cash came to take on the track: “In those days in Nashville, and for all the people that would visit, the most fun that anyone really could have would be to go over to someone’s house and play music. And they would do what one would call a ‘Guitar Pull,’ where you grabbed a guitar, and you played one of your new songs, then someone else next to you would grab it and do the same, and there were people like Johnny Cash or Joni Mitchell, people of that calibre in the room.

“Shel sang his song ‘Boy Named Sue,'” Myers continued, “and Johnny’s wife June Carter thought it was a great song for Johnny Cash to perform. And not too long after that, they were headed off to San Quentin to record a record – Live At San Quentin – and June said, ‘Why don’t you bring that Shel song with you.’ And so they brought the lyrics. And when he was on stage, he performed that song for the first time ever; he performed it live in front of that captive audience, in every sense of the word.”

Faced with a bustling audience, Cash likely felt sure that the song would land as a bit of light relief from his other darker songs. “He had to read the lyrics off of the sheet of paper that was at the foot of the stage, and it was a hit,” Myers continued. “And it wasn’t touched up; it wasn’t produced or simulated. They just did it, and it stuck. And it rang. I would say that it would qualify in the realm of novelty, a novelty song. Shel had a knack for the humorous and the kind of subversive lyrics. But they also were so catchy that people could not resist them.”

It’s a joyous combination of Johnny Cash’s venomous delivery, surrounding a unique subject matter and respectfully rendered with a knowing smile. Though The Man In Black was always happy to address the darker side of life, there’s a good reason he made his audiences smile.

All the rugged charm of a barfly with a joke in his head, Cash was made for this song like the boy was destined to be called Sue.

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