There Really Was a Boy Named Sue

GQ magazine published an article about baby names and the modern trend to name children with offbeat identifying monikers. Drew Magary offers this introduction and then a series of warnings to the baby-naming parents:

“The power that comes with naming a child can be both intimidating and addictive, and we are currently in the throes of a child-naming crisis here in America. Seemingly rational people are naming their kids Baylynn, and Daxx, and Nirvana. Ethans are becoming Aythans. Marys are becoming Jazzmins. Wannabe elitist parents keep trying to one-up each other, as if a uniquely horrible name serves as some kind of guarantee against little Aston Martin growing up to be merely ordinary. Soon we’ll be staring down an army of Apples, and the entire country will collapse upon itself.”

There have been some great power names. King Vidor, Judge Reinhold, and Sergeant Shriver immediately come to mind. I have a friend whose first name is Colonel. It’s no accident that Marion Robert Morrison chose to go by John Wayne.

Then there’s the boy named Sue.

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 children’s 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.

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 ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said good-bye.

Sue_Hicks_Cropped
Sue Kerr Hicks (1895-1980)

Cash hadn’t had the chance to learn the lyrics before he began to belt it out to his captive audience. He was reading the words as he sang it. If you listen closely, you can hear the shouts of approval from the appreciative 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 girl’s 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,1 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.” Reminds me of the Sheldon Cooper character on “The Big Bang Theory.” His mother also calls him Shelly.

  1. “State v. John Scopes” at www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/evolut.htm and “The Scopes Monkey Trial” at www3.mistral.co.uk/bradburyac/tennesse.html []