September 18, 2008
Written by Shel Silverstein
“A Boy Named Sue,” written by the jack-of-all-trades Shel Silverstein and immortalized by Johnny Cash, is a story song of great tension and terrific drama that’s been a captivated piece of country songwriting since its release in 1969. Cash performed the song live at San Quentin State Prison in California as part of his second jailhouse album At San Quentin. The concert was also recorded for broadcast by Granada Television on February 24, 1969.
It tells the engaging tale of a young man’s quest for revenge on an absent father whose only contribution to his entire life was naming him Sue. The name was the cause of teasing and torment throughout the boy’s childhood. But Sue grew into a man who could easily fend for himself due to all of his childhood fights. In the last verse, Sue finds his father in a bar, and the two begin to brawl.
Eventually they stop fighting, and Sue’s father admits that the name was given to him was an odd blessing for the boy. He knew that a father’s absence could harm his son, so he decided to saddle him with the name so that he would learn to be tough throughout his life. Sue then forgives him for his mistakes. With this lesson learned, Sue closes the song with a promise: “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!”
June Carter was pivotal in the seminal moment in Cash’s career. Shel introduced the famous country couple to “A Boy Named Sue,” and June Carter thought it would be perfect for her husband to perform. Before their trip to San Quentin, June suggested Johnny bring Shel’s song. Cash performed the song for the first time ever, live in front of the prison audience, for his second live album At San Quentin. Cash even had to read the lyrics from a sheet of paper placed at the foot of the stage. The spur-of-the-moment performance still brought the song sweeping success across the country format and beyond.
“A Boy Named Sue” became Cash’s biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, spending three weeks at #2 in 1969, and it topped the country music and adult contemporary charts that same year. CMA voters tabbed it as the Single of the Year in 1969. The Grammy committee also gave praise to the musical tale, naming “A Boy Named Sue” the Best Country Song for 1969 and honoring Cash with Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his rowdy rendition of the comical, quirky song.
“A Boy Named Sue” is the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.