A Boy Named Sue: Johnny Cash
My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze
Now, I don’t blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue.”
Well, he must o’ thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a’ lots of folk
It seems I had to fight my whole life through.
Some gal would giggle and I’d get red
And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head
I tell ya, life ain’t easy for a boy named “Sue.”
Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean
My fist got hard and my wits got keen
I’d roam from town to town to hide my shame
But I made a vow to the moon and stars
That I’d search the honky-tonks and bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name
Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
And I just hit town and my throat was dry
I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew
At an old saloon on a street of mud
There at a table, dealing stud
Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me “Sue.”
Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
From a worn-out picture that my mother’d had
And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye
He was big and bent and gray and old
And I looked at him and my blood ran cold
And I said: “My name is ‘Sue!’ How do you do!
Now you’re going to die!!”
Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes
And he went down, but to my surprise
He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear
But I busted a chair right across his teeth
And we crashed through the wall and into the street
Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer
I tell you, I’ve fought tougher men
But I really can’t remember when
He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile
I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss
He went for his gun and I pulled mine first
He stood there lookin’ at me and I saw him smile
And he said: “Son, this world is rough
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
He said: “Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do
But ya ought to thank me, before I die
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Because I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you Sue
I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son
And I came away with a different point of view
And I think about him, now and then
Every time I try and every time I win
And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!
“A Boy Named Sue” is a song written by humorist and poet Shel Silverstein and made popular by Johnny Cash. Cash recorded the song live in concert on February 24, 1969 at California’s San Quentin State Prison for his At San Quentin album. Cash also performed the song (with comical variations on the original performance) in December 1969 at Madison Square Garden. The live San Quentin version of the song became Cash’s biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and his only top ten single there, spending three weeks at No. 2 in 1969, held out of the top spot by “Honky Tonk Women” by The Rolling Stones. The track also topped the Billboard Hot Country Songs and Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks charts that same year and was certified Gold on August 14, 1969, by the RIAA.
The song tells the tale of a young man’s quest for revenge on a father who abandoned him at three years of age and whose only contribution to his entire life was naming him Sue, commonly a feminine name, which results in the young man suffering from ridicule and harassment by everyone he meets in his travels. Because of this, Sue grows up tough and mean, and smartens up very quickly, though he frequently relocates due to the shame his name gives him. Angered by the embarrassment and abuse that he endures in his life, he swears that he will find and kill his father for giving him “that awful name”.
Sue later locates his father at a tavern in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, during the middle of a summer season, and confronts him by saying, “My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you’re gonna die!” This results in a vicious brawl that spills outdoors into a muddy street. After the two have beaten each other almost senseless, Sue’s father admits that he is the “heartless hound” (“son of a bitch” in the Johnny Cash version) that named him Sue and explains that the name was given as an act of love. Because Sue’s father knew that he would not be there for his son, he gave him the name, believing (correctly) that the ensuing ridicule would force him to “get tough or die”. Learning this, Sue makes peace with his father and they reconcile. With his lesson learned, Sue closes the song with a promise to name his son “Bill or George, anything but Sue”.
The song has an unusual A-A-B-C-C-B rhyme scheme, broken only to mark the midpoint and ending. The song is performed mostly in the speech-like style of talking blues rather than conventional singing.
The term “son of a bitch” in the line “I’m the son of a bitch that named you Sue!” was bleeped out in the Johnny Cash version both on the single and the At San Quentin album, and the final line was also edited to remove the word “damn”. Both the edited and unedited versions are available on various albums and compilations. The term “son of a bitch” was edited to “son of a gun” or altogether bleeped out in some versions. When performing the song live in later performances (such as in April 1970 at the White House and in 1994 at the Glastonbury Festival, for example), Cash would himself utter a bleep-censor sound in lieu of the word. The unedited version of the original San Quentin performance is included on later reissues of the At San Quentin album and on Cash’s posthumous The Legend of Johnny Cash album. Silverstein, for his part, does not utter any profanity in his original version, with Sue’s father instead identifying himself as the “heartless hound” that named him Sue.
The title might also have been inspired by the male attorney Sue K. Hicks of Madisonville, Tennessee, a friend of John Scopes who agreed to be a prosecutor in what was to become known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial“. Hicks was named after his mother who died after giving birth to him.
In his autobiography, Cash wrote that he had just received the song and only read over it a couple of times. It was included in that concert to try it out—he did not know the words and on the filmed recording he can be seen regularly referring to a piece of paper. Cash was surprised at how well the song went over with the audience. The rough, spontaneous performance with sparse accompaniment was included in the Johnny Cash At San Quentin album, ultimately becoming one of Cash’s biggest hits. According to Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, neither the British TV crew filming the concert nor his band knew he planned to perform the song; he used a lyric sheet on stage while Perkins and the band improvised the backing on the spot. While another song, “San Quentin”, was expected to be the major new song featured in the concert and subsequent album (so much so the album includes two performances of “San Quentin”), “A Boy Named Sue” ended up being the concert’s major find. 
Cash also performed it on his own musical variety show, ending the song with the line, “And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him… John Carter Cash“, referring to his newborn son. Cash also performed this variant at the White House in April 1970; in later years, however, he would restore the original “any name but Sue” ending, but change the wording to “if I ever have another son”.
According to Shel Silverstein’s biographer Mitch Myers, it was June Carter Cash who encouraged her husband to perform the song. Silverstein introduced it to them at what they called a “Guitar Pull,” where musicians would pass a guitar around and play their songs.
Silverstein later wrote a follow-up named “The Father of a Boy Named Sue” on his 1978 Songs and Stories in which he tells the old man’s point of view of the story. The only known recording of the song by a major artist is by Shel Silverstein himself. Various cover artists have covered this song since then.
Chart performance (Johnny Cash version)
|Preceded by |
“Workin’ Man Blues”
by Merle Haggard
|Billboard Hot Country Singles |
August 23 – September 20, 1969
|Succeeded by |
“Tall Dark Stranger”
by Buck Owens
|Preceded by |
by George Hamilton IV
|RPM Country Tracks |
August 23 – September 13, 1969
|Succeeded by |
by Glen Campbell
|Preceded by |
“In the Year 2525” by Zager & Evans
|Billboard Easy Listening Singles number-one single |
August 30, 1969 (2 weeks)
|Succeeded by |
“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” by Tom Jones
Impact on popular culture
The gender-bending implications of the title have been adapted to explore issues of sex and gender, another use of the popular song title that goes beyond its original scope. The 2001 documentary A Boy Named Sue features a transgender protagonist and uses the song in the soundtrack. A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music is the title of a 2004 book about the role of the gender in American country music.
In the Dexter’s Laboratory episode ‘”A Boy Named Sue”, Mandark recalls through his infancy and early childhood when his Hippie parents named him Susan and how he discovered his manhood by science.