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Did You Know Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” Was a Tale of Vengeance?

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Johnny Cash’s name is one of the most recognizable in the history of country music. As the voice behind classic songs such as “A Boy Named Sue,” Cash was, and still is incredibly popular with millions of people.

Released at the height of his success in 1969, “A Boy Named Sue” quickly climbed to No.1 on Billboard Hot Country Singles. It stayed at the No. 1 spot on the country charts for five straight weeks and even became Cash’s biggest hit on the pop charts, landing at No. 2 on the Billboard 100 chart.

A Song For Such a Horrific Name

“A Boy Named Sue” was written by Shel Silverstein, which tells the story of a boy whose estranged father left him at the age of three with the burden of a name that is more suited for a girl, “Sue.”

Sue is angry because his name “got a lot of laughs from a’ lots of folk” and “some gal would giggle.” Life has never been easy for him fighting the ridicule for having a traditionally female name. So, he swore to the “moon and stars” that he would find his father and kill him for giving him such a horrific name.

Several years passed by, and Sue eventually found his father in a bar. He greeted him with one of the best three lines in songwriting history: “My name is Sue. How do you do? Now you’re gonna die!”

A physical altercation ensued, resulting in a knife cutting off part of Sue’s ear. Sue hit his father hard enough to break a chair on his teeth before his father revealed why he gave him his name. 

“Son, this world is rough,” the song explained. “And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough. And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along. So I give ya that name, and I said goodbye. I knew you’d have to get tough or die. And it’s the name that helped to make you strong.” Sue found himself unable to go through with his father’s assassination, and the two ended up settling their differences.

The unique tale of a young man’s quest for revenge definitely caught the country fan’s attention. To make it even more unique, Cash actually recorded the song live during his 1969 concert at California’s San Quentin State Prison for his At San Quentin album. The song’s live San Quentin version became Cash’s biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and his only top ten single there.

According to Silverstein’s nephew, Mitch Myers, it s actually Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, who deserves the credit for the singer recording what became one of his career-defining songs. “Shel sang his song “Boy Named Sue,” and Johnny’s wife, June Carter, thought it was a great song for Johnny Cash to perform,” he said.

Why Did Silverstein Picked The Name Sue?

While it is not entirely sure why songwriter Shel Silverstein picked the name “Sue,” it is believed that the name was inspired by the well-known attorney Sue Hicks. Hicks was named after his mother, who died a few days after giving birth to him. He was most famous for his “Scopes Trial” role in 1925, where he played as co-investigator and prosecutor.  

Silverstein attended a judicial conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where Hicks was a speaker. Apparently, this is where Silverstein got the idea for the song’s title as the prosecutor’s name struck him as oddly feminine.

Though Johnny Cash later said that he was not aware that Silverstein had only one person in mind when he wrote the song, he sent Hicks two autographed pictures and two albums with the inscription, “To Sue, how do you do?”

You can watch Johnny Cash’s unexpected tale of vengeance in the video below.

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