"A Boy Named Sue" was recorded at the height of Johnny Cash's career, during a live performance in front of inmates of San Quentin, the notorious prison perched on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. Here's the famous video of his performance:
One of San Quentin's inmates was George Jackson, a world-famous Black Panther organizer whose memoir, Blood In My Eye, would become a bestseller, and eventually even inspire the title of a Ja Rule album(!). In 1971, Jackson was killed by prison guards, leaving many unanswered questions.
Only a few miles away from the prison, in Sausalito's Richardson Bay, floated a houseboat occupied by an odd-looking songwriter named Shel Silverstein. Silverstein wrote "A Boy Named Sue," and Johnny Cash's wife June loved it so much that she gave him the lyrics to sing at San Quentin. Five years later, Bob Dylan would make the pilgrimage to Sausalito to visit Shel for some advice on lyrics that eventually became part of his album Blood on the Tracks. Here's a video of Shel introducing his band, Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, on his houseboat:
Here's Shel, in his creaking-door, screeching voice, singing a duet with Johnny Cash of "Sue":
When I first saw this video, the first thing I noticed is how uneasy Johnny Cash is around Shel. Especially unnerving is the moment when Shel yells, "Now you gonna DIE!"
Shel Silverstein had a lot in common with George Bataille, it turns out. Except that he is a celebrated children's author and musician. Shel had the same fascination with blood, with treachery, human degradation and betrayal. Somehow, he adapted that fascination into songs, cartoons and poems that were enjoyed by even the most conservative parents.
For Shel, everything from murder to incest to prostitution and suicide (all favored topics in his poems and songs) were simply expressions of the "unquantifiable magic of art," to use his phrase. The San Quentin prisoners were a kind of touchstone for the American public in the context of Shel's hilariously disturbing art. The prisoners symbolized the "other side" of rational goodness, and were thus the perfect audience for Shel's Dionysian, violent, gender-bending song.
Most people have heard "A Boy Named Sue," but very few people have heard the sequel Shel wrote to the song, in the late 1970's, from the perspective of Sue's father. He takes it much further...
"When you're walking down the street did you ever see someone coming toward you, and you get the vibe that you better cross the street because you don't want to cross paths with that person?" asked Shel.
"Of course," said Williamson.
Shel continued. "I was coming out of a restaurant the other day and I look up and coming into the restaurant as I was leaving was this guy who just scared the shit out of me." He paused for a few seconds, before he said, "Then I realized it was a mirror." (131)