"Boy Named Sue" is a song by Shel Silverstein that was made popular by singer Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash was at the height of his popularity when he recorded the song live at California's San Quentin State Prison at a concert in 1969. The concert was filmed by Granada Television for later television broadcast. The audio of the concert was later released on Cash's At San Quentin album. The song became Cash's biggest hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and his only top ten single there, spending three weeks at #2 in 1969. Cash's thirty-six consecutive previous entries that reached the pop charts but failed to reach their top ten is the all-time record for any act. 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.
Shel Silverstein's recording was released the same year, a single to his album Boy Named Sue (and His Other Country Songs), produced by Chet Atkins and Felton Jarvis.
Years later Silverstein wrote a follow-up named "The Father of a Boy Named Sue" in which he tells the old man's point of view of the story.
The song tells the tale of a young man's quest for revenge on a father who abandoned him at 3 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, 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 Gatlinburg, Tennessee tavern 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 son of a bitch" 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 to make sure that he grew up strong. Learning this, Sue forgives his father and they reconcile. With his lesson learned, Sue closes the song with a promise to name his son "Bill or George, any damn thing but Sue! I still hate that name!"
The song has an unusual A-A-B-C-C-B rhyme scheme, broken only to mark the midpoint and ending, and is full of vivid images such as "he kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile". The song is performed mostly in recitation rather than conventional singing.
The core story of the song was inspired by humorist Jean Shepherd, a close friend of Silverstein, who was often taunted as a child because of his feminine-sounding name.
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 Trial. Sue 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 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.