Behind The Song: “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash’s version of “A Boy Named Sue” is one of the first songs I can ever remember hearing. I first heard it in my now-late dad’s old blue stretched-out crappy car from 1970-something. I don’t know the make or the year, that’s how young I was at the time. But I just remember my older brother putting the passenger seat down so far back that he could lie straight and not be seen by anyone he might know. My dad would often play classical music on the stereo, which we thought was boring at the time. But every once in a while, he would play his favorite rock artist: Johnny Cash.

The song from that “Best Of” cassette tape collection my dad owned included a live rendition of the Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.” In between the verses and the clever ending, you can hear hollering; rowdy men loving the story. I imagine now that must have been how my dad felt at times listening to it, too. “A Boy Named Sue” offers a sense of relief. It acknowledges the weight of masculinity and allows people—perhaps, men in particular, like my dad, or like the men locked up in San Quentin State Prison, where Cash first performed the song at the behest of his wife, June Carter—a certain catharsis from a pressure that gender, hormones, and DNA foist upon us all.

That’s why “A Boy Named Sue” is great and that’s why it’s lasted all these years. Written by author and humorist Shel Silverstein, who wrote such seminal offerings as The Giving Tree, the song tells the story of a man named “Sue” by his father. At birth, the name created a hard life for the man, because, as we all know, those with different names get chastised for them. And men with traditionally feminine names do especially.

Cash recorded the song, which is performed mostly as spoken word over blues changes, first live in concert on February 24, 1969, at the California correctional facility San Quentin State Prison, for his live album, At San Quentin. Later, Cash performed the song again in December of the same year at a concert at Madison Square Garden. His San Quentin performance went on to be his biggest hit and his only top ten single on the Billboard Hot 100. It spent three weeks at No. 2, coming in just under The Rolling Stones and their song, “Honky Tonk Women.” It was also No. 1 on the country charts.

As the story in the song goes, the man named Sue was abandoned by his father at three years old. The dad only left him and his mom a guitar and “an empty bottle of booze.” But he also left him with the name. It was the meanest thing he ever did, says the song’s narrator, Sue. That act made Sue grow up fighting his whole life through. People would laugh at him. Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue. He grew up quick and he grew up mean. No, life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.

But—aha!—that was just the point. Sue’s old man had a plan. Life is hard, so what better way to get used to that and even give yourself an advantage than to take on a silly, laughable name. Get those fists a-flying early. Sue had to go from town to town to hide my shame. But he made a vow to himself. He would find his father, the man who gave him that awful name, and he would kill him when he did.

One day, Sue finds his father in a saloon in Gatlinburg, Tennesee. The “dirty, mangy dog” who’d named him Sue. He knew it from a picture his mom used to have. Sue saw his father there, grey and old. And he said, My name is Sue! How do you do! Now you’re going to die! Sue punches the old man, who comes up slicing him with a knife. The two crash through a wall and into the street. The two draw guns. Then the old man smiles. He recognizes his son and in the lyrics, tells him what he’d done and why he’d done it:

“Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make
It he’s gotta be tough
And I know I wouldn’t be
There to help you along
So I give you that name
And I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s that name that helped
To make you strong.”
He said, “Now you just fought
One heck of a fight
And I know you hate me
And ya got the right
To kill me now and I wouldn’t
Blame you if you do
But you oughta thank me before I die
For the gravel in your gut
And the spit in the eye
‘Cause I’m the (bleep)
That named you Sue.”

The curse word in the second to last line—“son of a bitch”—are bleeped out in the recording. Though, the men at San Quentin loved it in real-time, to be sure. In the end, the two men—Sue and dad—hug. They understand each other in a new light, finally. And, Sue says, if he ever has a son, he’s going to name him…Bill! Or George! Anything but Sue! And the San Quentin folks roar again.

According to legend, the meaning of the song lyrics was likely inspired by writer and humorist Jean Shepherd, a friend of Silverstein’s, who would be taunted by peers as a kid for his feminine name. The title itself, some say, may have been inspired by a famous male lawyer, Sue K. Hicks of Tennessee. And Silverstein was said to have shown Cash and Carter the song one day during a “Guitar Pull,” or a session where songwriters traded around the instrument, each playing one of their songs before passing it to the next.

Since Cash made the song famous, it’s been covered by a number of artists, including Miley Cyrus.

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