My favorite story song: A boy named Sue

So, did Wimpy Kid fans get the hint? My favorite story song of all time is A Boy Named Sue, made famous by Johnny Cash, but written by none other than Shel Silverstein (who was good friends with Cash).

Before we get to this song, I’ll go ahead and define a story song. It’s one whose goal is simply to tell a story. Some songs provide inspiration and hint at a story, but a story song gives us all we need to have been told a great story. It’s something we can go and tell someone else if we’d like.

What makes a great story? It needs to have an intriguing hook, it needs to hold your attention with a protagonist whose plight you can understand. There should be some surprises along the way. And resolution of the main conflict/problem is always good. This song has it all.

Now, back to  A Boy Named Sue. The song’s title alone makes you sit up and take notice, right? Never heard the song? That’s probably because it was popular in 1969. I heard it for the first time about 10 years ago, when my husband and I were on a road trip and the oldies radio station was playing the to 10 songs of each decade starting with 1960. I laughed hysterically through this song and loved every single second of it.

The song is copyrighted so I can’t just drop the lyrics in my post (well, I could if I paid or wrote and got permission; I’m just not that organized). I can use excerpts of the song for commentary and criticism, so that’s what we’re going to do here. (There’s a link to Johnny Cash singing it at the bottom of the post.)

The song essentially tells of a man named Sue, whose father named him, then abandoned him. Sue spends his whole life having to fight and claw and deal with taunting about being named Sue. He has vowed to murder his father if he ever sees him again. So, of course, during the course of the song, Sue stumbles across his father in a bar and recognizes him (from a picture his mother kept).

Our protagonist looks at his father and says,  “My name is ‘Sue!’ How do you do!  Now your gonna die!”  A fight ensues and Sue remarks, “I tell ya, I’ve fought tougher men, but I really can’t remember when.  He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.”   Isn’t that just perfect? So much is said in those two little sentences, and then the song gets better!

Sue gets his father down for the count, and that’s when the father tells his son why he named him Sue.  “Now you just fought one hell of a fight … 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, cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue.'”

What a brilliant turn of events! There is a reason for that name. The father and son reconcile, and there’s a darling line of misdirection at the end. Well, you can watch that below.

That is a great story! Here’s Johnny Cash singing it (with lyrics on the screen).

I’ll be guest posting on Thursday, so there will be a link to that. Next Monday, I’ll tell you my next favorite story song. It’s a fun one!

About RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist who now writes fiction. She's reported for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, as well as the smaller publications Education Technology News and Campus Crime. She has two published novels, Life First and Second Life and blogs for Indies Unlimited and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. For exclusive content and first looks at her new work, sign up for the newsletter at http://rjcrayton.com/subscribe.
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4 Responses to My favorite story song: A boy named Sue

  1. roys keane says:

    Think dylan and cash are great cohen too, nick cave and his album murder ballads is pretty good, and kenny rodgers had some decent story songs also.

  2. Jeri says:

    I love this song and I love me some Johnny Cash! I had no idea the lyrics were written by Shel Silverstein. That just makes the song that much cooler. My favorite narrative poem song is “Hollis Brown” by Bob Dylan. It’s so bleak, but the story is powerful.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      Agreed. Hollis Brown is a great narrative song. I think novelist can learn a lot from song writers. They manage to convey so much in a very short span.

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