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Johnny Cash had a large repertoire of songs—everything from Matthew 24 is Knocking at the Door to Burning Ring of Fire. The one song that brings the most laughter to the listener is A Boy Named Sue. The lyrics are those of the multi-talented Shel Silverstein (1930-1999), author of The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, and other award-winning childrens books. In addition to books, Silverstein wrote dozens of clever songs. You might remember The Unicorn by the Irish Rovers and Cover of the Rollin Stone by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. But it was Cash who made A Boy Named Sue memorable when he recorded it on February 24, 1969 at San Quentin Prison before a live but incarcerated audience. Cash hadn’t had the chance to learn the lyrics before he began to belt it out to his demanding audience. He was reading the words as he sang it. If you listen closely, you can hear the shouts of approval from the appreciative crowd of convicts, many of whom could tell stories of their own about abandonment and abuse. Cash commented that it was the most cleverly written song that he had ever heard. The song is about a boy who grows up angry at his father, not only for leaving his family but for naming him Sue. After the boy grows up, he sees his father in a bar and gets in a fight with him because his father gave him a girls name. When his father explains that he named him Sue to make sure he would grow up tough, the son embraces his father but still detests his name.
Now to the title of this article. There really was a boy named Sue. Sue Hicks, the City Attorney of Dayton, Tennessee, was the person who arrested John Scopes in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 that pitted the state of Tennessee against the ACLU and the teaching of evolution in public schools. Maybe Shel (Sheldon) Silverstein got the inspiration for A Boy Named Sue from his own life. His parents called him Shelly.