On Sept. 16, 1969, Johnny Cash‘s “A Boy Named Sue” hit No. 1 on the country charts. By all accounts, the song is one of Cash’s most iconic recordings. To this day, “A Boy Named Sue” permeates pop culture. Even if some folks don’t realize where it came from.
For the most part, the song was never meant for a widespread audience. That’s probably because it deals with its main character trying to kill his father.
But when Johnny Cash first performed the song live, he figured that kind of thing might resonate with his audience. Because the first time he performed it live was for a room full of convicts. And completely unrehearsed.
That’s right, Cash chose to play “A Boy Named Sue” for the first time at his infamous San Quentin State Prison performance. And the whole thing was kind of June Carter’s idea, to be honest.
Johnny and June first heard the song at a guitar pull in Tennessee. (That’s where writers take turn singing their songs). Shel Silverstein, a noted poet, cartoonist and humorist wrote the song after a conversation with his friend Jean Shepherd, who relayed his childhood dismay at being made fun of for what other kids perceived to be a “girl’s name.”
Silverstein, who had increasingly dabbled in songwriting since the late 50s, wrote “Boy Named Sue” and released it on his 1969 album Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs (produced by Chet Atkins). You may best recognize Silverstein is a children’s author, but he had a long and respected career in adult works, too.
In fact, Silverstein wrote with Kris Kristofferson and had a few songs performed by Loretta Lynn, among many other artists in several genres. Here’s his original version of the song. Note the different delivery and the over-the-top performance. You can instantly hear the humorist’s personal twists.
Naturally, Johnny’s better half June Carter Cash (at the time they were just barely married, but had worked together forever) knew the song was a perfect fit for Johnny. He’d heard Shel’s version but had never performed the song before.
So, Cash brought the lyrics with him on the way to San Quentin. When he started the song, the band just improvised behind him and Cash repeatedly referred to the lyric sheet on stage. They didn’t spend much time on it because they thought it may just be a novelty performance.
The captive audience raved.
Everything about the performance was about as authentic as it’d get. Cash pulls of the performance as if he’d rehearsed every word. His form of talk-singing just kind of came as a natural extension of not having any melody in mind. And when you hear him chuckle, it’s an honest reaction to Silverstein’s clever writing.
The audience reaction was a welcome surprise to Cash. Not to mention everybody at the record label. Releasing the new song was an obvious decision, unrehearsed arrangement and all.
An unlikely success, “A Boy Named Sue” went Gold before it even went No. 1 (which is fairly rare). It also earned a Grammy in 1970 and became Cash’s highest charting song on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed No. 2. for three weeks. It was kept out of the top spot by The Rolling Stones’ track “Honky Tonk Women.”
References to “A Boy Named Sue” in pop culture abound. Just look at the episode of Nashville when Deacon name’s his new boy puppy “Sue.” (By the way, Charles Esten, who plays Deacon, ended up keeping that dog).
The song also inspired a 2004 book called A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music, which explores the impact of gender on the development of country music (it’s fascinating).
From other artists like Stone Temple Pilots and Red Hot Chili Peppers to Hollywood films to TV sitcoms and children’s cartoon, “A Boy Named Sue” managed to become one of the most-referenced country songs of all time.
The song also became one of Cash’s most-requested. He played it at the White House for President Nixon. He played it on his own television show. He even invited Silverstein onto his show to sing some of his other material (and of course, “A Boy Named Sue”).
It’s a fascinating case study of a song that resonated deeply with the entire world, though nobody can quite put their finger on why. Silverstein eventually wrote a follow-up song called “Father Of A Boy Named Sue,” which tells the story from the father’s point of view.
It wasn’t a success, like, at all. Probably because it’s deeply cynical and contains some very controversial lyrics. If you really want to hear it, go here. But maybe don’t, if you want to keep your impression of the original masterpiece untainted. (Just remember, Silverstein was a humorist whose cartoons appeared in Playboy long before he was a celebrated children’s author).
But the legacy of the original San Quentin performance remains unchanged. It’s amazing how a live performance of an unrehearsed song became one of Johnny Cash’s biggest songs. And nobody but Johnny Cash could have pulled that off.
My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don’t blame him cause 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 o’ thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a’ lots of folk,
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I’d get red
And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head,
I tell ya, 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,
I’d roam from town to town to hide my shame.
But I made a vow to the moon and stars
That I’d search the honky-tonks and bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name.
Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
And I just hit town and my throat was dry,
I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew.
At an old saloon on a street of mud,
There 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’d had,
And I knew that 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!”
Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes
And he went down, but to my surprise,
He come 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 ya, I’ve fought tougher men
But I really can’t remember when,
He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.
I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss,
He went for his gun and I pulled mine first,
He stood there lookin’ 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 ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong.”
He said, “Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do.
But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I’m the son of a bitch that named you ‘Sue’.”
I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!