It All Starts with a Boy
The end of the 1960’s brought the world the debut of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, the last live performance of the Beatles, and the first man landing on the moon. In the world of music, 1969 is the year Johnny Cash released his hit “A Boy Named Sue.” In July 1969, Cash released what it would become his biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Tara Cash, Cindy Cash, Kathy Cash and Rosanne Cash speak during ‘Becoming Our Father: Johnny Cash’s Daughters in Conversation’ at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on May 27, 2017, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Country Music Hall Of Fame & Museum)
Written by Shel Silverstein and produced by Bob Johnston, the song was certified Gold on August 14, 1969, by the RIAA and topped both the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks and Hot Country Songs charts the same year. Cash sang it urged by his wife, June Carter Cash, who thought it to be perfect for Cash’s repertoire. In celebration of the song’s birthday, here is the complete story behind one of the most famous and loved Johnny Cash songs.
Setting the stage – Shel Silverstein writes “A Boy Named Sue”
Photo of Shel Silverstein (Photo by Alice Ochs/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
A multitalented American writer famous for his children’s books, cartoons, and songs, Sheldon Allan “Shel” Silverstein was born in a Jewish family on September 25, 1930. He began drawing and writing at a very young age.
Silverstein is best known for his iconic books of poetry and prose for young readers. Some of the titles include “Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back” (1963), “The Giving Tree” (1964), “A Giraffe and a Half” (1964), “The Missing Piece” (1976), and “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O” (1981). A prolific poet, Silverstein was also the author of several contemporary poetry collections such as “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1974), “A Light in the Attic,” (1982), “Falling Up” (1996) and Don’t Bump the Glump! And Other Fantasies (1963, reissued in 2008).
His books, which are all illustrated by the author, are characterized by a skillful mixing of the serious and sly, the macabre, and just plain silliness. The recipient of a Golden Globe, an Academy Award nomination, and two Grammy Awards, Silverstein had started dabbling in songwriting since the late 1950’s, but it wasn’t until 1969 that he became famous in the music world.
A Masterpiece is Born
The noted cartoonist and poet got the idea for the song after a conversation with his friend Jean Shepherd, who conveyed his childhood suffering due to being made fun of because all the other kids believed he had a “girl’s name.” Silverstein originally recorded the song himself, but it was Johnny Cash’s rendition that brought it into the spotlight.
Jean Shepherd. December 08, 1964. (Photo by Arthur Pomerantz/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
While it is not entirely sure why Silverstein picked the name “Sue,” it is assumed that the name was inspired by the well-known attorney Sue Hicks, who was named after his mother who died a few days after giving birth to him. Hicks is mostly known for his role in the 1925 “Scopes Trial,” where he was a co-investigator and prosecutor. Silverstein attended a judicial conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee where Hicks was a speaker, and apparently, this is where he got the idea for the song’s title, as the prosecutor’s name struck him as oddly feminine.
While Johnny Cash later said that he was unaware that Silverstein had only one person in mind when he wrote the song, he sent Hicks two autographed pictured and two albums with the inscription, “To Sue, how do you do?”
Jean Shepherd as an Influence for the Song
American radio and TV personality, actor, writer and storyteller, Jean Shepherd had a career that spanned more than five decades. Mostly known for his film “A Christmas Story” (1983) that he co-scripted and narrated, Shepherd was a good friend of Shel Silverstein, which is how he became the inspiration behind “A Boy Named Sue.”
The feminine sound of his name has bothered Shepherd all his life, and he was long mocked during his childhood because “Jean” is pronounced like the feminine name “Jeanne.” Shepherd mentioned how difficult it is to live with an unusual name in multiple interviews over the years. Shel Silverstein was one of Shepherd’s close friends and discussing the difficulties of being raised with a feminine name sparkled his imagination to write the lyrics for “A Boy Named Sue.”
What Is the Song About and Who Is Sue?
The song tells the story of a boy abandoned by his father at the age of three and left to deal with the ridicule of having a female name. Right from the introduction, we find out that not only has Sue’s father abandoned him, but he also left him with the burden of a name that is more suited for a girl.
Jean Shepherd. Source: theverge.com
“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.”
Sue is angry because everyone makes fun of his name and wishes he had a regular name like everyone else. Because the name gives him so much same, Sue grows up mean and tough but also relocates quite frequently to escape the ridicule that seems to follow him wherever he goes.
“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.”
The years pass, and Sue eventually finds his father in a bar and greets him with one of the best three lines in songwriting history: “My name is Sue. How do you do? Now you’re gonna die!”
An Ironic Twist at the End
The next scene describes the father and son wrestling and snarling until they take a breather because they are evenly matched, and the father ends up smiling at his son.
“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.”
In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, he tells his son that he gave him that name because he had always known he was not going to be around to raise him properly, so he had to make sure his son would grow up tough because he’d always have to fight for respect and defend his honor.
“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.”
Sue and His Father Make Peace
Just like in the movies, Sue has a sudden change of heart and decides that he doesn’t want to kill his father anymore. He starts to feel a strange tenderness towards the man who gave him life and left him so long ago.
“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.”
Bobby Bare Sr. (left) and Shel Silverstein (right)Source: npr.org
However, instead of getting all soppy, Silverstein ends the song with an ironic note, with Sue affirming that his hatred for his father is no more, but that he’ll name his future son “Bill, George, any damn thing but Sue.” The final lines of the song are written in a humorous note, but they also signal that the exasperation of having to go through life with this kind of name is nothing something that you can get over quickly.
Structure and Censorship in “A Boy Named Sue”
When one listens to “A Boy Named Sue,” it is immediately apparent that the entire structure is not a conventional one. The song is performed by both Silverstein and Cash in a talking blues manner, which means that is more of a speech-like style than actual singing. The somewhat unusual A-A-B-C-C-B rhyme scheme of the song is continuous, being only broken at the middle and end.
Jean Shepherd. Source: shepquest.wordpress.com
Because the song includes terms that could be deemed offensive for live performances, such as “son of a bitch” and “damn,” the version on the “At San Quentin” has several words bleeped out, just like the version on the single. The final line was edited and the word “damn” was removed. Cash would use bleep-censor sounds himself in later live performances, such as those at the White House in 1970 and the Glastonbury Festival in 1994. Later reissues of the “At San Quentin” performance and the posthumous “The Legend of Johnny Cash” albums contain the unedited versions.
The version of the song performed by Shel Silverstein is not censored because there are no profanities in the original interpretation. In Silverstein’s version, the line “I’m the son of a bitch that named you Sue!” reads “I’m the heartless hound that named you Sue!”
Meaning of the Lyrics – Part 1
“A Boy Named Sue” is a masterful mix of storytelling and humor, and this is visible immediately as the song opens with three lines that set the stage perfectly, establishing the two main characters, giving the listener good details about the setting (empty bottle, an old guitar), and being the starting point for the tension that evolves later in the song. The two characters, the motive and rich details are all present in the first verse, which only has 56 words.
The action begins in the second stanza. Essential to great storytelling, action tells the reader or listener how characters move in the world, and in this case, the action starts with people laughing at Sue’s name, which leads to loads of embarrassment and fighting. “Some gal would giggle, and I’d get red, and some guy’d laugh I’d bust his head, says Sue,” and listeners can feel the boy’s pain and how his wretched name has shaped his entire life.
10Meaning of the Lyrics – Part 2
The setting is further developed in the third stanza, (“Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July“), as the time element is established. Other significant details make the story visually distinctive: a dry throat, a man dealing cards, and a beer in a salon on a street of mud. Silverstein chose all the right details so that the listener can picture every element accurately.
Now the main action takes place, as Sue recognizes his father (“I knew that snake was my sweet dad from a worn-out picture that my mother’d had.”) Even though his dad is now bent and old and gray, Sue recognizes him because of his scar and evil eye that remained the same as the years passed. From now on, the song transforms into a dialogue, as Sue shouts for the whole saloon to hear “My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you’re gonna die!“
The action becomes much more intensive as the father and son struggle and fight, and the twist comes at the end, as mentioned above. The father’s real motives have the potential to diffuse the tension, but they are deliberately left concealed until the very end.
Cash’s Contribution to Storytelling
The lyrics of the song truly shine due to Silverstein’s incredible talent at conveying emotions in words, but Cash is a great storyteller in his own right, and his performance contributes to creating a memorable atmosphere, as he genuinely captures the lousy grammar and inflections of a deadbeat outlaw. When Cash performs the song, he metamorphoses into the characters and brings them to life in a unique way. Silverstein has an excellent ear for dialog, and seven verses begin with the conversational “well…”
Johnny Cash performing on the Grand Ole Opry (Photo by Elmer Williams/Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum/Getty Images)
“A Boy Named Sue” goes to show that there is no need to write an entire novel to convey a story. It is also a beautiful example of how well a great story can be told in song for everybody to enjoy and appreciate. Cash’s voice is synonymous with “A Boy Named Sue,” but it’s Silverstein’s words that made it possible for the country legend, the band, and the inmates at San Quentin prison to have the time of their life on the day of the live recording.
Who Was Johnny Cash in 1969?
“The Man in Black,” Johnny Cash was already a famous singer, guitarist, and songwriter at the end of the 1960’s. His style was an innovative mix of country, blues, rock, and gospel and he had already gained an excellent reputation due to his mix of original lyrics and unmistakable voice. At the time Silverstein wrote “A Boy Named Sue,” Cash had established himself as a legend of the American music world. Besides being known for his razor-sharp voice and legendary live performances, he was also known for his rather colorful personal life and quirkiness.
Photo of Elvis PRESLEY and Jerry Lee LEWIS and Carl PERKINS and Johnny CASH; L-R Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley (sitting), Johnny Cash – The Million Dollar Quartet – group shot at Sun Studios (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
If the folk-country music were to present a figurehead with a considerable charisma to go with his dark lyrics, Johnny Cash would be the best representative. With more than half a century of career and 90 million albums sold, the legendary star managed to be both a working-class hero and gain the status of living legend.
Cash’s nickname was “Man in Black” because he repeatedly stated that he would never perform without wearing black, because he wore an all-black outfit of a T-shirt and jeans to his first gig ever, and that brought him good luck. He was also known for his relationship with June Carter and fighting substance abuse for the better part of the 1960’s. His signature introduction for all concerts was “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” and usually he would always begin with his most-known hit, “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Birth of a Legend
It was on the sunny plains of Arkansas that J.R. Cash was born on February 26, 1932. His father was Ray Cash, and his mother was Carrie Cloveree (née Rivers). Because his parents could not agree on the name they would give their fourth born, they decided to go with the initials “J.R.” Cash only adopted the name John Rat when he was 18 years old because the United States Air Force would not accept a soldier with only initials.
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips poses for a portrait with country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash as he gives him a framed record of the song ‘I Walk The Line’ to commemorate a milestone in album sales which was released on May 1, 1956 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Colin Escott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Cash was very close to his brother Jack, who was two years older than him. He would be definitively marked by Jack’s death, who was almost cut in half by a circular saw he was working with when he was only 14. Cash never got over the guilt he felt for this event, mainly because he wasn’t at his brother’s side when the tragedy happened.
Surrounded by the tunes of gospel and country music specific to the cotton fields of the South, he started to clumsily play the guitar and composed his first songs at the age of 12. After several difficult work experiences in several areas, Cash enlisted in the US Air Force and was sent to San Antonio, Texas, to be trained in the interception of coded radio communication. He then left for Landsberg Air Base in Germany. During his time in Germany for the US Air Force in the late 1940’s, Cash bought his first real guitar and became particularly interested in the fate of the convicts by attending the screening of a documentary on prisons.
Johnny Cash with Teddy Wilburn and Doyle Wilburn (The Wilburn Brothers) (Photo by Elmer Williams/Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum/Getty Images)
Upon his return to Memphis, he attempted a breakthrough with the Sun music label, auditioning for Sam Phillips, who judged his gospel songs as “not saleable.” His brother Roy presented him to musicians Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant, who work in the front of the studio. He started to sing with them and returned to Phillips with different titles, less gospel, and more country, which earned him the recording and publication of “Cry Cry Cry,” “Hey Porter,” and of course “Walk the Line,” his first entries to the hit parade in 1956.
Cash Rises to Fame
The year 1957 saw the release of his first album “Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar,” coupled with his first cinema appearance in ‘Five Minutes to Live.’ At the same time, he performed in the Million Dollar Quartet, alongside Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins.
Married country singers Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash perform onstage in circa 1970. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Cash moved to the Columbia label and was noticed on stage as being different with his black outfits, a clear contrast with the sequins and fringed costumes of the country musicians of the time. He also began to perform on stage with June Carter, and they fell in love, which was not without problems, given that he was married to Vivian Liberto and June was married to Edwin Lee Nix.
The 60s saw the artist perform with his ‘Tennessee Two’ band, which brought lots of trouble. As the pressure to perform more piled and the band was on the road for up to 300 days a year, violinist Faron Young slipped some pills in Cash’s hand during a sound check, and this was the beginning of a slippery slope that would lead Cash to consume sometimes more than 100 amphetamine pills a day. June Carter later co-wrote a song that would become one of his greatest hits: ‘The Ring of Fire,’ describing the infernal circle in which the singer was locked due to his addiction.
The Road to Perdition and Recovery
Cash was arrested in 1965 in Texas for possession of heroin. His personal life spiraled out of control, with drugs and alcohol being frequent tour companions. Cash’s infernal schedule and drug addiction dynamited his marriage, and his wife Vivian left with their four daughters and filed for divorce in 1966.
EL PASO, TX – OCTOBER 1965: Country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash poses for a mug shot after U.S. Customs agents found hundreds of pep pills & tranquilizers in his luggage as he returned from a trip to Juarez, Mexico in October 1965 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
His old touring companion, June Carter, was the one who offered Cash the lifeline he needed to get the treatment he needed for his drug addiction and rediscover his Christian faith. They married in 1968 and Cash made an extraordinary recovery. In 1969, he began hosting “The Johnny Cash Show,” where he invited a series of contemporary musicians including Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan. The show also provided Cash with the forum to explore a range of social issues such as prison reform, the rights of Native Americans, and the Vietnam War.
The same year, Cash won two Grammy Awards for his album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968), a commercial and critical success. The album revived his popularity and marked the transition from the drug-addiction period to one of personal and professional growth. In 1970, June Carter and Johnny Cash welcomed their first and only child, John Carter Cash.
Johnny Cash Discovers “A Boy Named Sue”
It was during this revival period that Johnny Cash discovered “A Boy Named Sue.” After he listened to Silverstein’s rendition of the piece, he was intrigued and attempted to learn the song on his flight out to San Francisco. He examined the lyrics while spilling much coffee on them, as he had a thing about carrying a jar of Chase and Sanborn instant coffee wherever he went, according to his manager, Saul Holiff.
1957: Country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash holds a guitar as his wife Vivian Liberto and daughters, Rosanne Cash and Kathy Cash look on in 1957. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
However, he wasn’t sure about performing the song live at San Quentin prison, mainly because he didn’t have the time to master the lyrics and rehearse it with the band. This is where his wife, June Carter Cash, entered the scene and persuaded him to give the song a try by placing the lyrics on the stack of songs he was preparing for the live performance.
June Carter – The Wind between Cash’s Wings
American singer and songwriter June Carter Cash was born in 1929 into country music royalty. She enjoyed several claims to fame; she was the niece of A.P Carter and the daughter of Mother Maybelle, the founders of the seminal country and folk group the Carter Family. She was also part of the Carter Sisters before embarking on a solo career as singer-comedian. Finally, she is best remembered for her marriage and musical partnership with Johnny Cash, her third husband, and frequent duet partner. June Carter was also a distant cousin of U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Married country singers Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash pose for a portrait at an event in September 1969 in California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Born in Mason Spring Virginia, Valerie June Carter had been singing since she was a little girl. By 1943, she was an essential part of the Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle, where she played the guitar and autoharp. When she was not the best singer in her mother’s group, Carter had wit and nerve, and she would play the dumbbells for fun to get the audience’s attention, while her sister, Anita, mesmerized them with her haunting soprano voice that would eventually make her a gospel legend.
Carter Before Cash
When she was not performing with her family, Carter tried to embark on a solo career in comedy and acting. She had multiple television appearances at the “Kate Smith Hour” and the “Grand Ole Opry.” While her material was rather unremarkable, the way she performed it and the willingness to do anything for a laugh made Carter a favorite with the audiences.
President and Pat Nixon on stage with Johnny Cash and June Carter during an evening at the White House. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
She eventually moved to New York encouraged by director Elia Kazan, to study at the famed Actor’s Studio under Lee Strassberg. She married Carl Smith, a country singer, in 1952, but their marriage didn’t last because the demands of show business kept them apart. They were married for five years and had one daughter, Rebecca Carlene Smith, also known as Carlene Carter, who will become a country singer in the 90s.
June Carter married policeman Edwin Nix in 1957, and they had one daughter, Rosanna. She continued to pursue an acting career and played supporting roles in movies such as “The Adventures of Jim Bowie” and “Gun Smoke.” However, she put her acting career on pause, as things weren’t going quite as expected, and by 1961 she and her mother and sisters went on tour to open shows for Johnny Cash as “The Carter Family.”
Marriage to Johnny Cash
June Carter had known Johnny Cash since the mid-1950s, but she wasn’t too familiar with his music until Elvis Presley introduced her to it. Johnny Cash and June Carter were first introduced backstage at the “Grand Ole Opry,” and their paths would then continue to cross during the following years. They started to develop a deep affection for each other, even though they were both married to other people at the time. After her divorce from Edwin Nix in 1966, she agreed to marry Cash, but only if he quit drugs and recommitted to his faith. Cash did everything she asked, and if it weren’t for her insistence that he cleaned up his act, his life would have been in great danger. In a way, she was his savior, and he recognized her merits in the matter all his life. He asked June to marry him during a concert, in front of a large audience.
Married American country singers Johnny Cash (1932 – 2003) and June Carter Cash (1929 – 2003) pose with their eighteen month-old son John, Glasgow, Scotland. June wears a knit winter cap. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)
Th couple married on March 1, 1968, and in 1970, Carter gave birth to their only son, John Carter Cash. Acting as a mother to her newborn son and her daughters from her first marriages and as a stepmother to Cash’s daughters from his previous marriage left Carter with very little time on her hands to focus on a solo career. However, she started to collaborate more and more with her husband for country duets and together they won Grammy Awards for their remake of “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter.” Other singles with Johnny Cash include “It Ain’t Me Babe” (1964), “No Need to Worry” (1971), “The Loving Gift” (1972), and “Old Time Feeling” (1976).
June Carter Cash Pushes Johnny to Sing “A Boy Named Sue”
June Carter was with Johnny Cash at a guitar pull in Tennessee, where writers took turns singing their songs. Shel Silverstein was there performing “A Boy Named Sue,” and Carter immediately noticed that the song would be a perfect fit for Cash’s style.
Johnny Cash is kissed by his wife, June Carter, after being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the Country Music Association’s awards presentations night. The couple’s son, John, looks on.
Cash himself liked the song, and he had heard it before, but this was the first time he heard Silverstein perform it. This is why he took the lyrics with him on the way to San Quentin where he was due to play in front of the inmate there.
It was June Carter who put the lyrics of the song into the San Quentin pile, urging her husband to give it a try during the live performance. If it wasn’t for her, Cash wouldn’t have executed what would later become one of his most famous live performances.
The First Performance at San Quentin Prison
Cash was renowned for having always harbored a soft spot for those who at some point in their lives found themselves in trouble with the law. As such, in 1969, he was right in the middle of a concert tour of prisons across the country. A year before he had skyrocketed to fame after recording his legendary album “At Folsom Prison.” The album is one of Cash’s most famous ones, and it was certified three times platinum in 2003. After the success of “At Folsom Prison,” Cash continued the tour in 1969 with several high-security prisons, one of them being the infamous San Quentin Prison in California.
Johnny Cash, San Quentin State Prison and Folsom PrisonSource: flavorwire.com
As he stood in front of the inmates with his guitar in hand, Cash addressed the inmates and admitted the song he was about to sing was not quite in its finished form. He didn’t manage to know “A Boy Name Sue” too well and had to ask one of his musicians for backup help. Cash had memorized the basic chords, but he didn’t quite know the words, so he resorted to reading them off a sheet of paper. It was the first time he did that in front of a live audience.
A Memorable Live Rendition of “A Boy Named Sue”
When you listen to the live version of “A Boy Named Sue,” you can hear lots of laughs, shouts, and cheers, signaling that the song was an instant hit with the audience. Not only do the inmates react to the humorous lyrics, but some of them even join in. The song soon climbed to number one in the charts, showing that Silverstein’s words and Cash’s synergy were a match made in heaven.
Cash sells the song, filling it with a humorous touch that makes the first live performance so memorable. Everything about the performance was authentic, and you can hear Cash and the band having much fun with the song, but the result sounds like the song has been rehearsed in detail. Critics have since been unanimous in considering the recording one of the best live performances of the 20th century.
Because he didn’t have the melody well established in his mind, Cash used a form or talk-singing, and he chuckles at times as an honest reaction to the funny and witty lyrics written by Silverstein. Moreover, the response of the audience came as a surprise – everyone seemed to have a blast performing and listening to “A Boy Named Sue.”
Later Live Performances of “A Boy Named Sue”
Besides the San Quentin version, Cash recorded several other renditions of the song over the years. He performed the song on his TV musical show, and he changed the line about giving his son any name but Sue to “And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him… John Carter Cash,” as a nod to his newborn son. The same version was performed in 1970 at the White House, but over the years, Cash returned to the original version of the lyrics, sometimes changing the words to “if I ever have another son.”
(Original Caption) Singer Johnny Cash as he chats with some of the inmates and guests during his visit to Cummins Prison in Arkansas. April 10, 1969.
Another variant of the live song is that Cash performed together with The Highwayman later in his career. The Highwayman was a country music group ash was a member of between 1985 and 1995, and for this version, he would end the song with the line “if I ever have another boy, I think I’m gonna name him Waylon, or Willie, or Kris.” This was about his fellow bandmates Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.
Rather unusual for songs that are such hits, there are no other performances from other artists of “A Boy Named Sue” apart from those of Silverstein and Cash.
An Unlikely Chart Hit
Even though it wasn’t the kind of song anyone expects to do well in the charts, “A Boy Named Sue” went Gold before going Number 1, which is a quite rare occurrence. In 1970, the song became the highest charting song for Cash on the Billboard Hot 100 at Number 2 for three weeks and earned a Grammy Award as well. It was not number one on the Billboard Hot 100 because it was kept out by “Honky Tonk Women” by The Rolling Stones.
(Original Caption) ATLANTA: Country music star Johnny Cash performs before 800 released convicts at the city auditorium. The prisoners were set free as part of Georgia’s early release program, and Cash agreed to perform for the inmates because of his long known feelings in helping prisoners.
The song also topped the Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks Billboard and Hot Country Songs charts that same year and RIAA certified it Gold on August 14, 1969. “A Boy Named Sue” was the stupendous hit single that “At Folsom Prison” never had, and it boosted Cash’s already stellar reputation as a live performer. It was a record promoter’s dream, the big single that beckons people to the album.
Johnny Cash at San Quentin
“A Boy Named Sue” was subsequently included on Cash’s “At San Quentin” album, which went on to become certified gold on August 12, 1969, platinum and double platinum on November 21, 1986, and triple platinum on March 27, 2003. The album was also nominated for multiple Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, and “A Boy Named Sue” brought him an award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Album cover for the Johnny Cash 7 inch record ‘Recorded Live at Folsom Prison, Folsom Prison Blues, The Folk Singer’ and released on April 30, 1968 in Folsom, California. (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)
In 1969, Cash was an emerging cultural force, the subject of a major documentary, the center of harsh speculation about his relationship with Bob Dylan, the focus of intense media scrutiny, and the star of his television show. As such, fans gobbled up the album, and major magazines splashed profiles on Cash as the new album appeared on the shelves.
Reviews were raving, with Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times crowning it as the superior album of the two Cash prison albums. He wrote: “The new Johnny Cash at San Quentin is every bit as exciting [as Folsom] and, no doubt, a lot more representative of the mood of convicted men. Since it was the first of its type, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison will probably remain the more discussed album in future years. However, the new one is a classic. It offers a fascinating look at the rebelliousness of man.”
Why Was “A Boy Named Sue” So Appealing to the Public?
“A Boy Named Sue” became a favorite with the audiences not only because of its humorous ladies and the electrifying performance by Johnny Cash but also because it depends how exceedingly tricky it can be for a boy to grow up with a girls’ name or indeed with any trace of femininity.
CIRCA 1957: Country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash sits on a bed playing acoustic guitar as his first wife Vivian Liberto looks on in circa 1957. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
In the song, it turns out that a father’s boy stigmatized him with a class name intentionally, with the purpose to compel him to be more resilient and tougher than other boys. This tackles the issue of masculine behavior in raising boys differently than girls. Instead of tolerance and acceptance, many parents tried to mold or direct their children to designated ways of being that are acceptable to society.
Besides being highly appealing to the public, “A Boy Named Son” also started various debates in the world of Psychology regarding the influence an unusual name can have on the development of a child. The discussions ranged from the developing of insecure masculinity traits to the increased possibility of becoming a violent adult.
What’s Really in a Name?
“A Boy Named Sue” is much more than a humorous rendition of a family quarrel. This song is about identity, and it goes to show just how much our society depends upon names and the meanings associated with them. With the sharp, slightly ironic lyrics, Silverstein pokes fun at the insistence of the human beings to define each other based on titles and names. The character of the song proves that judging someone we meet only by their name is superficial and while a name is essential, it’s just a starting point when it comes to an understanding a person.
Carlene Carter with her famous stepfather Johnny Cash at a reception for Carlene at the Biltmore. She is trying to follow in the footsteps of her stepfather and mother with singing as a profession. June 09, 1978. (Photo by Vernon Shibla/New AYork Post/Photo Archives, LLC via Getty Images)
The song has been the basis of multiple studies related to the impact an unusual or bad name impacts people growing up in America. J. Marion Tierney discusses numerous theories regarding the influence of a name on a person’s upbringing in “A Boy Named Sue and A Theory of Names.” He argues that once we get past someone’s name, we can then start seeing them for who they are, and the name becomes irrelevant for the relationship.
How Do Unusual Names Impact a Child’s Life?
Multiple studies have shown that children with humorous or unusual names are more likely to suffer from mental illness and psychiatric problems later on in life. They are also more likely to receive lower grades in school, but it is also true that sometimes a bad name can make children stronger.
KINGSLAND, AR – MAY 1959: Country singer/songwriters Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash go fishing in May 1959 in Kingsland, Arkansas. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Researchers at the American Name Society argue that people with cross-gender names or unusual ones have a better sense of self-control. As such, it’s not that they fight more, but that they learn how to let things go much better than other people.
Other studies show how a name that is common and easy to pronounce makes it more probable for an individual to be hired, while uncommon names are associated with juvenile delinquency. Professor David Figlio from the University of Florida published a study that found that boys with a girl’s name were most likely to disturb their peers and misbehave in middle school.
Johnny Cash’s Relationship with His Father
It comes as no surprise that Johnny Cash felt an instant connection with Silverstein’s song given his strained relationship with his father. The son of Ray and Carrie Cash, Johnny Cash was influenced by both his parents, but in entirely different ways. He was the fourth of seven children, and regarding his musical development, his mother played an essential role, as she sang hymns and played the piano, providing a musical background in an otherwise austere household.
(Original Caption) Astronaut Neil Armstrong (left) stops to chat with western singer Johnny Cash and his wife, the former June Carter, following their appearance at the Madison Square Garden benefit show for the Eisenhower Medical Center.
On the other hand, Ray Cash wasn’t a musician, and his primary activity was working in the cotton fields, where he often took Johnny with him to help. Cash’s father is a slightly controversial figure, and the public is most familiar with the version presented in the 2005 Cash biopic, “Walk the Line.” Ray Cash was born in Arkansas in 1897 and was sent to France during World War I, like many of his generation. After receiving an honorable discharge, he returned to his home county and started a family. They moved to Dyess in 1935, which is where Johnny Cash grew up.
A Not So Glamourous Upbringing
Johnny Cash may not have suffered the shame of having to live with a girl’s name, but he surely knew a thing or two about growing up in hardship. The family had no running water or electricity at home before they moved to Dyess, and while they had food on the table, the Cash family were far from doing well.
American country singer and musician Johnny Cash poses for photographers at the Savoy Hotel in London. 17th September 1959. (Photo by Daily Herald/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Ray Cash was a typical Southern man, and as such, he shared the racial attitudes of his day. His son, Johnny, eventually grew up to be more progressive than him, but Ray’s weak appetite for politics influenced Johnny, who admitted he never voted in his life.
The tense relationship between father and son led to a lot of bitterness and resentment carried by Johnny towards his father. Apparent anger toward his father is visible in Cash’s autobiography published in 1997. At one time, Ray shot Johnny’s pet dog for killing some chickens, something that Johnny never forgot.
A Father Figure Capable of Change…Or not?
Cash’s relationship with his father fluctuated over the decades. In 1952, Johnny was writing to his then-fiancée Vivian: “My dad used to drink all the time.” Years later, the resentments started to fade, and just like in “A Boy Named Sue,” the father and son reached somewhat of a consensus. The period of drug-addiction was over, and Cash started to spend more time with family after the birth of his son and tried to include his father at family gatherings.
Photo of June CARTER and Carlene CARTER and Johnny CASH; Johnny Cash with step daughter Carlene Carter(L) and wife June Carter Cash (R) (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)
In 1976, Johnny Cash traveled to Cleveland County, and as part of his efforts to be a good son, he made sure his father was a central figure of his homecoming show. Ray Cash died in 1985, and the next year, his son published his only novel, “Man in White.” The book was dedicated to his father. However, in his second autobiography published in 1997, Cash didn’t have many good things to say about his father. He mentioned that his father never stopped drinking and confessed he didn’t think of him often and that he never visited his grave.
The Embodiment of Masculinity – Johnny Cash and the Macho Paradox
It is ironic how a singer that possessed one of the most masculine voices in the history of American music came to perform a song that deals with the problem of fragile masculinity. Bono from U2 once said that “Nothing is as macho as Johnny Cash’s voice,”
SOUTH DAKOTA – CIRCA 1965: Country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash accepts regalia from Sioux chief during a concert as his wife June Carter Cash looks on at the Rosebud Reservation in circa 1968 in South Dakota. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
While Kirk Hammett from Metallica argued that “He was one of the originals. He was one of the first guys to embody that “Don’t mess with my image.”
An icon of Southern white masculinity, Cash had a multilayered personality, and his lyrics, persona, and biographical and auto-biographical presentation raised critical issues for the study of contemporary American masculinity. The “Man in Black” persona is in stark contradiction with the humorous lyrics of “A Boy Named Sue,” but somehow the paradox works to create a memorable piece of music that transcends gender and brings people together.
“A Boy Named Sue” and the Violence in Songs Debate
It is a known fact in the world of psychology that listening to songs with a violent layer can trigger intense feelings and thoughts, but this generally refers to songs by heavy metal groups and gangsta rap. It wouldn’t be something you’d expect from listening to a country music legend. However, psychologists have shown that listening to “A Boy Named Sue” increases aggressive and negative emotions in the listener.
American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash (1932 – 2003) and his four daughters from his first marriage on heir way to a Catholic Mass at the Church of St Anastasia in Inglewood, Los Angeles, May 1970. The girls are (left to right) Kathy, Tara, Rosanne and Cindy. Cash was in town for a concert. (Photo by Frank Edwards/Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Researchers had found that the effect wasn’t the same when subjects listened to other songs by Cash, so they concluded that the mere lyrics were enough to increase feelings of hostility. These findings were used to demonstrate that listening to violent music is not a way to vent aggression, but to fuel negative emotions in the listener instead. Dr. Craig Anderson published the findings in the “American Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” and concluded that content matters most in violent entertainment media, triggering an important message for parents.
“A Boy Named Sue” Legacy in Popular Culture
The song was referenced multiple times in popular culture over the years. Because of the gender-bending implications of the song’s title, “A Boy Named Sue” has been the basis to explore various issues of gender and sex. For example, the documentary “A Boy Named Sue” from 2001 uses the song in the soundtrack while featuring a transgender protagonist. The role of gender in American country music is explored in the 2004 book “A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music” by Kristine M. McCusker and Diane Pecknold.
Cliff Richard, Johnny Cash and Billy Graham at the Spree ’73, a major Christian festival at Wembley Arena, London, 1st September 1973. (Photo by Bunny Atkins and Mike Lloyd/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
One of the main male characters in the movie “Swingers” is named Sue, and another explains the name by mentioning Sue’s father was a big Johnny Cash fan. Multiple songs by various singers and bands reference “A Boy Named Sue,” with examples including The Proclaimers in “Hate My Love” and Red Hot Chilli Peppers in “Save this Lady” and “One Big Mob.”
Father of A Boy Named Sue
In the wake of the song’s success, Silverstein wrote a follow-up song called “Father of a Boy Named Sue,” which tells the same story, but from the father’s point of view instead. The song starts like this:
“Okay now years ago I wrote a song called A Boy Named Sue, and that was okay, and everything except then I started to think about it, and I thought, it is unfair I am looking at the whole thing from the poor kid’s point of view. and as I get older and more fatherly, I begin to look at things from an old man’s point of view, so I decided to give the old man equal time, okay here we go).”
CIRCA 1975: Country singers Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash perform onstage with acoustic guitars in circa 1975. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Released in 1978, the follow-up song wasn’t a success – in fact, critics tore it apart, and the general opinion was that it ruined the original. In the follow-up song, Sue’s dad decides to set the record straight about everything. Contrary to what the first song suggested, he left his son, not because of problems with his mother or money, but because Sue “kept screaming and throwing up and pissing in his pants till I had enough.” This is why names him Sue and then ran away.
A Change of Tone and Message
The original song made it sound like the boy was just a regular kid who happens to be saddled with the name of a girl. However, according to the sequel, Sue is not a regular guy, but an ugly crossdresser who scratched his dad with long fingernails and hit him with a purse instead of punching him in the face:
“Now this ain’t the way he tells the tale, but he scratched my face with his fingernails, and then he bit my thumb and kicked me with his high-heeled shoe, so I hit him in the nose, and he started to cry, and he threw some perfume in my eye, and it sure ain’t easy fightin’ with a boy named Sue.”
NEW YORK- NOVEMBER 19: Country singer, songwriter, musician and actor Johnny Cash performing at The Felt Form on November 19, 1976 in New York City. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)
Moreover, the old man wasn’t done changing the perception of the public over the problem of Sue’s name, because he doesn’t mean it when he says, “I named you Sue to make you tough.” He only told his son that to avoid getting shot:
“Then out of his garter he pulls a gun I’m about to get shot by my very own son, he’s screamin’ bout Sigmund Freud and lookin’ grim uh. So I thought fast, and I told him some stuff, how I named him Sue just to make him tough, and I guess he bought it ’cause now I’m livin’ with him.”
A Not So Successful Follow-Up
The song finishes in a note that makes listeners feel a bit sorry and sad for the fate of Sue because he now lives with his father and as all kinds of chores for him. The son and father have made up, just like in the original song, but the perspective is all different in the follow-up.
“Yeah he cooks and sews and cleans up the place he cuts my hair and shaves my face, and irons my shirts better than a daughter could do, and on the nights that I can’t score well, I can’t tell you any more, sure is a joy to have a boy named Sue yeah a son is fun, but it’s a joy to have a boy named Sue.”
NASHVILLE – SEPTEMBER 6: Country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash in Jack Clements Studio recording on September 6, 1986 in Nashville, Tennessee. (photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images)
Johnny Cash never performed “The Father of a Boy Named Sue,” and the only recorded version is that of Shel Silverstein himself. The song never made it to the charts, and few people even know it exists.
A 360-degree Change of Meaning
The follow-up changes the meaning of the original version almost entirely, and perhaps this one of the reasons it had no success at all. Sue is perceived as a transgender-type in lyrics that some have found borderline offensive. While in the original song the father’s explanation for giving his son a feminine name is endearing and puts his behavior in a different light, the explanation in “The Father of a Boy Named Sue” makes the father a toxic figure.
Singers Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis at the Dane County Coliseum, Madison, Wisconsin, February 18, 1982. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
The phenomenon of emotional distancing of a parent from their children is one studied extensively by psychologists. Some parents believe that they are doing their kids a favor by driving them off, but this, in fact, leads to dysfunctional relationships. When Sue’s father abandons his family in the first place, it is terrible, but to come back and use his son as a servant while belittling him is taking it to another level of dysfunctionality.
Shel Silverstein After “A Boy Named Sue”
“A Boy Named Sue” was Silverstein’s only notable contribution to the world of music, even though he has written and performed other songs. None of them became as famous as the story of Sue, which happened because it was popularized by Johnny Cash. He released an album called “A Boy Named Sue and Other Country Songs” after Johnny Cash made the title track into a huge hit, and went on to release “Legends and Lies (The Songs of Shel Silverstein)” in the 1970’s. Moreover, he wrote soundtracks for multiple motion pictures such as “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?” “Ned Kelly,” and “Thieves.”
(Original Caption) 6/14/1977-Washington, DC-President and Mrs. Carter chat with singers Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter, during a visit the couple paid to the White House. With them is the singer’s son, John Carter Cash. Earlier Cash sang at Flag Day ceremonies at the Capitol
Even though Silverstein was celebrated for his music in some circles, it was his work as an author of children’s books that set him apart and gained him international recognition. He published two of his most well-known titles, “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The Missing Piece” in the 1970’s, followed by “A Light in the Attic” and ” The Missing Piece Meets the Big O” in the 1980s.
Johnny Cash’s Later Career
Even though “A Boy Named Sue” was a highlight of his career, Johnny Cash didn’t stop there. In fact, his music continued to enchant audiences until the 2000’s. With a career that spanned half a century, Cash recorded over 1,500 songs throughout his life, with more than 500 written by him. He sold more than 50 million records and was awarded 15 Grammy Awards; including 1999 for his life’s work.
UNITED KINGDOM – NOVEMBER 15: Photo of Carlene CARTER and June CARTER and Johnny CASH; Johnny Cash performing on stage with The Carter Family, includine June Carter (2nd left) and Carlene Carter (2nd right), (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
He also received six awards from the Country Music Association. In 1980, he was inducted into the “Country Music Hall of Fame” and in 1992 in the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” Until Elvis Presley’s admission to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998, Cash was the only artist to receive both honors.
After a performance at the White House in front of President Richard Nixon, he said about the singer: “Johnny Cash is the true voice of America, as rich and strong as the nation itself.” In his songs, Cash paid much attention to the underprivileged and minorities and took a critical stance on political and social issues.
Johnny Cash in the 1970’s
In 1970, Johnny Cash was known all over the world and became one of the superstars of American music. However, this is a period during which Cash is reborn on multiple plans, not only in his musical career. Between the birth of his son John, his visit to the White House with Richard Nixon, his fight for the preservation of the heritage of Native Americans, the meeting with Kirk Douglas and the first episodes of his TV show, the ‘Johnny Cash Show ‘, the singer lives again and seems to be finally rid of the demons that haunted him.
June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash at the Unknown in New York City, New York (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
The 70’s were a prosperous decade for the country singer, as his music career flourished once more with the release of hit singles such as “A Thing Called Love” (1972) and “One Piece at a Time” (1976). Cash also wrote music for the Little feature Fauss and Big Halsy (1970) and starred in the movie “A Gunfight” (1970) with Kirk Douglas. He also made a brief return to the world of television with “The Johnny Cash Show: in 1976, while continuing to tour the world with June Carter Cash.
Cash about Cash
In 1975, Cash published “Man in Black: His Own Story in His Own Words, ” an autobiography that later served as the basis for the “Walk the Line” biopic released in 2005. In this first autobiography, Cash doesn’t shy away from telling the real story of his life, complete with details about his addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates, his relationship with his family, as well as the challenges he faced as fortune and fame changed his life.
(Photo by R. Diamond/WireImage)
He also emphasizes his faith, and many of Cash’s song lyrics are reprinted in the book, together with explanations about how they came to be or the way they had an impact on his life. In the book, Cash recounts how he encountered “A Boy Named Sue” and how it was June Carter who insisted he perform the song at San Quentin. The book sold more than one million copies and is still regarded as one of the best resources on Cash’s life and career.
The 1980’s Bring Problems
While his career is booming, Cash starts to face multiple health issues in the 1980’s, some of them as a repercussion of his years of abusing drugs and alcohol. At the beginning of the decade, Cash broke several ribs, had eye surgery, and damaged a kneecap, all of them in unrelated situations. His health-related mishaps made him addicted to pills again. Internal bleeding for which he was hospitalized in 1983 nearly killed him, and that was when Cash decided to check into rehab. He managed to overcome his pill addiction once again, and he managed to remain clean for the rest of his life.
American country singer Johnny Cash (1932 – 2003) and his wife June Carter Cash (1929 – 2003) leave the front gate of Kansas State Prison, circa 1968. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
On a professional level, the 1980’s brought a collaboration with his friends Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, and the four joined their forces together as The Highwaymen. Their first album, “The Highwaymen” was released in 1985 and reached No. 1 on the country charts. Another collaboration was with Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash returned to Memphis to record the “Class of ’55” album with them.
For almost ten years stretching from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, Cash pursued, abandoned, and pursued again a novel based on the life of the apostle Paul. Cash finally published his only book, “Man in White” in 1985. This was the same year Columbia Records dropped Cash. He subsequently signed with Mercury/Polygram Records.
The Revival of the 1990’s
In 1992, Johnny Cash was added to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and became the only person to be introduced to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame at the same time.
American country singer Johnny Cash (1932 – 2003) and actor Kirk Douglas stand at a bar in a still from the film, ‘A Gunfight,’ directed by Lamont Johnson, New Mexico, July 1970. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)
After leaving Columbia Records, Cash had signed with Mercury Records in 1987, but this deal proved to be a failure, with declining album sales. During the 1990s, he became popular again, especially with a young audience, yet generally little attracted to country music. He sang on the album U2 “Zooropa” in 1993, then signed on the American Recordings label by Rick Rubin, usually specialized in rap and metal (including the band System of a Down).
Under the direction of Rubin, in 1994 Cash recorded his first album on this label, titled merely “American Recordings 1”. In his room alone with his guitar, Cash performed songs by contemporary artists selected by Rubin. The album is a commercial success and wins the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. American Recordings returned Cash to the country-music album charts. It also netted the country legend his first solo Grammy Award since 1969’s “A Boy Named Sue.”
Johnny Cash Standing Next to Carl Perkins
Cash notably performed in 1994 at the Festival of Glastonbury, where he was welcomed triumphantly. He will later write that for him, the reception he got from the Glastonbury public was one of the summits of his career. He continued to cover multiple songs from very different backgrounds including Depeche Mode, U2, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Soundgarden or Nine Inch Nails.
In 1996, he released his second American Recordings Album, “Unchained,” which was again a great success and won a Grammy for Best Country Album.
Cash and Popular Culture in the 1990s
Cash’s other activities during the 1990s include appearances in the television series “Dr. Quinn,” with his wife June, and in the cartoon “The Simpsons,” in which he lends his voice to a coyote of the space that guides Homer Simpson on a spiritual quest for hallucination-induced chili abuse (“The Mysterious Voyage of Homer” episode). In 1997, he released a second autobiography, entitled “Johnny Cash: The Autobiography.”
Folk singer Johnny Cash as he testified on prison reform before Senate subcommittee on national penitentiaries. At left is Senator Bill Brock of Tennessee.
In March of 1991, Cash’s mother, Carrie, died, taking with her the unwavering support that had stabilized him, particularly in his youth. Moreover, then, shortly after Cash’s opening at Wayne Newton’s in 1993, his brother Roy passed. Roy was the other encourager who had endorsed the vision Carrie had for her son. He had inspired the younger brother with his poetry, stimulated his imagination with his band the Delta Rhythm Ramblers, and was the one who brokered the union of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two.
A Time for Family
The rapid succession of deaths in Cash’s family that accompanied his maladies and career disappointments put a damper on his spirit, but he found victories and joys to balance the bad times: the birth of grandchildren, a comfortable friendship with Billy Graham, and industry and civic awards too numerous to list.
Johnny Cash performs on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, London, September 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
Delightful, too, were his days and nights at his Cinnamon Hill retreat in Jamaica, an eighteenth-century estate he had purchased from a friend in the mid-1970s. He often escaped to its warm air to watch and listen to the time pass, gather family and friends, and host celebrities ranging from Tom T. Hall to Paul McCartney.
The Twilight of a Legend
In 1997, Johnny Cash was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, called Shy-Drager syndrome. The diagnosis was then changed to neuropathy associated with diabetes. The following year, he was hospitalized for severe pneumonia, which damaged his kidneys.
Musician Johnny Cash on stage with his band, in concert at San Quentin State Prison, California, February 24th 1969. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
The disease forced Cash to restrict his musical activities and his tours, but this didn’t prevent him from recording the albums “American III: Solitary Man” (2000) and “American IV: The Man Comes Around” (2002), which contain numerous allusions to his health problems. The second includes a cover of “Hurt” from the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, particularly acclaimed by critics and the public, and “Personal Jesus” from Depeche Mode.
The End of Love
On May 15, 2003, June Carter died of complications following heart-valve replacement surgery. She was surrounded by her husband of 35 years and all her other family members. Her daughter, Rosie Nix Adams, dies a month after her. Cash took her death very hard, and subsequent biographies mention that everyone who knew him didn’t think he could survive June’s death. It is believed that his health took a turn for the worse due to a broken heart over his wife’s death. With the death of June, one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century came to an end.
(Original Caption) 9/15/1976-Kris Kristofferson (L) and Johnny Cash perform a duet on ‘The Johnny Cash Show.’
One of June’s last wishes was for Johnny Cash to continue his work, so he continued to record and even perform some surprise shows at The Carter Family Fold, outside of Bristol, Virginia. His last public performance was a concert on July 5, 2003. Two weeks before, he appeared on stage and read a story about his wife June before singing “Ring of Fire.” He spoke about how June’s spirit watched over him and how she came and visited him before going on the stage. He was barely able to finish the song because of the emotion. Despite his precarious health, he also spoke about how he could’ wait for the day he would be able to walk again and throw his wheelchair into the river near his home.
Death of a Country Legend
Cash was hospitalized in Nashville, Tennessee in September 2003 less than four months after the death of his wife. He died from complications from diabetes on September 12, 2003, and was buried next to June in Hendersonville Memory Gardens. More than 1,000 people attended the two-and-a-half service at the same church where Cash mourned the death of his wife, the First Baptist Church of Hendersonville. He was 71 years old and left behind four daughters and a son.
HENDERSONVILLE, TN – SEPTEMBER 15: Johnny Cash’s casket is carried at the funeral for country music legend Johnny Cash at the Hendersonville First Baptist Church September 15, 2003 in Hendersonville, Tennessee. (Photo by Donn Jones/Getty Images)
Numerous singers, including Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Elvis Costello, were among the first to respond to his death. The president of the United States George W. Bush hailed the music legend, saying: “His voice and human compassion had won the hearts and souls of generations.”
His daughter Rosanne Cash spoke at the funeral and said “I can almost live in a world without Johnny Cash because he will always be with us. I cannot begin to imagine a world without Daddy.” Bob Dylan eulogized Cash as well” If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need to look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul…Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses.”
Johnny Cash’s Legacy
In September 2003, Cash was honored posthumously at the CMA annual awards, where he won Best Single, Best Video, and Best Album for “American IV.” New music from the late Johnny Cash surfaced in 2006, when “Personal File,” a two-CD set of previously unreleased material was unveiled. Later that year, “American V: A Hundred Highways” was released, showcasing a selection of songs that highlighted Cash’s older singing voice.
NASHVILLE, TN – SEPTEMBER 14: A black shroud and roses adorn the plaque marking Johnny Cash’s 1980 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame September 14, 2003 in Nashville, Tennessee. Cash died in a Nashville hospital on September 12. (Photo by Rusty Russell/Getty Images)N
Cash’s influence continued to echo, and in 2008 the artist won his last Grammy Award for “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” as Best Short Form Music Video. Tourists continue to visit Dyess to this day to see the place where Cash spend his childhood and youth. The Arkansas State University purchased the house where Cash grew up and restored as a museum. In 2013, a memorial stamp was released by the United States Postal Service to honor Johnny Cash.
Walk the Line
The story of his early career and rise to fame and that of the incredible love story with June Carter were the subject of the 2005 feature film “Walk the Line.” Joaquin Phoenix starred as Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon won an Academy Award for her performance as Cash’s lifelong companion, June Carter Cash.
Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix (Photo by E. Charbonneau/WireImage for 20th Century Fox Studios)
The film was released in the United States on November 18, 2005, and has had a considerable success ever since, receiving appreciation from the public and critics alike. Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon have won numerous awards, including Golden Globe in the “Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy” category, respectively in the “Best Actress in a Musical or a comedy.”
Both actors sang Cash’s songs themselves, and Phoenix learned to play the guitar for the film. Phoenix received the Grammy Award for his contribution to the soundtrack. John Carter Cash, the only son of Johnny and June, was the executive producer of the film.
Cash’s Influence on Country Music
No other musician apart from Elvis Presley has had such an influence and hold on the musical culture for decades. Johnny Cash has managed to become an influential and imposing figure while being an utterly unique voice in the musical world. He didn’t sound like a rock & roll singer, nor did he sound like a country singer from Nashville. He created his subgenre, in which rock & roll, folk, and country mixed blissfully.
Johnny Cash Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Memorialized with Flowers and Gifts by Fans (Photo by Lee Celano/WireImage)
Here is the recording of Johnny Cash singing “A Boy Named Sue”:
Cash was one of the biggest stars of American music in the ’50s and ’60s, and he scored well over 100 hit singles during his career. No other artist succeeded in touching the world of music quite like Johnny Cash. The image of “The Man in Black” is a purely American one, and the deep voice singing “A Boy Named Sue” is impregnated in the history and culture of the nation.