November 28th, 2007


A Boy Named Johnny

Last week, I found myself having to kill time in a Detroit area Best Buy. I wandered over to the CD section and made a single purchase: Johnny Cash – 16 Biggest Hits. In spite of my long-time affinity for Mr. Cash’s work, this marks the first time I’ve ever owned any of his recordings. The CD contains a lot of what you’d expect on a collection with such a title: I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, Daddy Sang Bass, and most notably for the purposes of this posting, A Boy Named Sue.

I was a young boy when that song vaulted to the #2 position on the pop charts, but I well remember that it was one of the funniest gol’darn songs I’d ever heard at the time. And though I’ve thought of it many times over the years, I hadn’t really sat down and focused on listening to it since childhood.

The first item of interest is the song’s author, Shel Silverstein. Most people, if they know him at all, know him from such children’s books as Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic, and The Giving Tree, but Mr. Silverstein’s talents were much more wide ranging than that. In fact, a bit of research on my part has turned up the fact that Shel wrote several successful novelty songs I remember well: Cover of the Rolling Stone, which was a hit for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and The Unicorn, which put the Irish Rovers on the map.

To me, Johnny Cash’s rendition of A Boy Named Sue is a perfect pairing of the right singer with the right song. Cash understands that the story told in the song is perfectly silly and requires little in the way of comic histrionics. He sings it pretty much straight until the very end, when he finally tips his hand and gives in to the inherent preposterousness of it all. The song lyrically goes through a multitude of idioms from countless country and western songs and stories; it’s really a parody of C&W more than an actual C&W song, but Cash’s control and conviction sweep us right along and enable us to suspend our disbelief even through the absurd tale that is being told – which is what makes it so much fun to listen to.

I know that other people have recorded ABNS since J.R. Cash, and that it has even been translated into other languages (the German version was titled, Ein Junge Namens Susi), but I find it hard to hold out much hope for renditions other than Cash’s. To me, this song belongs to him as much as I Am the Walrus belongs to the Beatles and as much as Alice’s Restaurant belongs to Arlo Guthrie.

Wow. There’s a thought… Michael Bublé doing a cover version of I Am the Walrus…
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