Playboy beatnik, poet, and satirist, Shel Silverstein was one of the 20th century’s most interesting minds; but it was his songwriting that shaped country music.
You know him as the author behind children’s books such as The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece. You know him for his poetry collections filled with verse and rhyme, often macabre or silly, such as A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. But Shel Silverstein was much more.
And a lot of what Silverstein was, was perverse, deliciously tongue-in-cheek and sometimes outright bawdy.
Before Silverstein was a children’s poet and illustrator, he was a cartoonist for Playboy. His first work appeared in the August 1956 issue and he became a regular contributor for over 40 years. He hung out with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. He hung out in Greenwich Village. He was Playboy’s beatnik before the beatniks were a thing.
And he was one of Bob Dylan’s favorite songwriters.
Dylan once visited Silverstein to play him the entirety of Blood on the Tracks before it was pressed to see if Silverstein approved. He did.
Silverstein recorded his first album, Hairy Jazz, in 1959, but it wasn’t until 1962’s Inside Folk Songs that Silverstein’s songwriting career began to take off. By this point, he had been hanging around the burgeoning folk scene for some time and Inside Folk Songs was a satirical look at it, a sort of self-help guide for want-to-be hipsters and beatniks.
The album features a very Silverstein moment in “(I’m Being Eaten by a) Boa Constrictor”. The song is Silverstein in a nutshell, if putting him in a nutshell were possible; it is a macabre children’s song on a satirical folk album that would later become a part of his poetry treasuries. But perhaps most importantly, Inside Folk Songs included the song “The Unicorn,” which would become a Top 10 hit for the Irish Rovers.
“There was green alligators and long-necked geese/there was hump back camels and there was chimpanzees/There was cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born/The loveliest of all was the unicorn.”
The album also caught the attention of Johnny Cash who liked the dark humor of the song “25 Minutes to Go” so much that he cut a cover. Then, nearly a decade later, when Cash’s career was in danger of floundering, he turned to Silverstein’s work again and recorded a cover of the song “A Boy Named Sue” for his live album At San Quentin.
The song topped country charts and reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, winning Silverstein a Grammy Award for Best Country Song. And just like that the floodgates opened. Faron Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee all recorded Top 10 covers of Silverstein’s songs.
Silverstein, however, never satisfied if he wasn’t breaking new ground, teamed up with a rowdy bar band from New Jersey called Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. Together they would produce some of the 70s best folk-rock, like the song “Cover of the Rolling Stone” which, poetically, got the band on the cover of Rolling Stone. It was with Dr. Hook that Silverstein’s dark, humorous side really came out to play on songs like “Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball,” “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and “Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love the Most” (about venereal disease).
Silverstein also teamed up with country legend and novelty musician Bobby Bare producing an album that spent 30 weeks on the chart and another number one single. Bare would call him “the greatest lyricist there ever was.” Nobody was more pervasive in country music; Silverstein also worked with Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Jerry Reed, Kris Kristofferson and Bob Gibson. His songs were recorded by Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Barbi Benton, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Ray Stevens, Steve Goodman…the list continues.
It’s nearly impossible to find a comprehensive list of Silverstein’s writing credits. He was famous for giving credit to anyone who helped him with only one line of a song. Other times he isn’t mentioned at all, such as the soundtrack for the movie Ned Kelly, which he composed. What is certain is that he had a gift, and a knack, for songwriting–a predilection for biting satire and macabre lyrics interwoven with poignancy that has left an indelible mark on the American landscape.
Shel Silverstein is perhaps one most often overlooked fathers of country and folk music. You may not be able to tie his name to his work, but you undoubtedly can sing along to his songs, quote his poems, recognize his illustrations, and maybe even have seen one of his plays.