Friday, February 26, 2010

February 26: Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue"

Artist: Johnny Cash
Song: "A Boy Named Sue"
Album: At San Quentin
Year: 1969

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Certain songs have such a distinctive sound or feel that, along with being instantly recognizable, there has never been another song that can be compared. In many of these cases, the song is so unique, that not even the artist that performs it has anything else in their catalog that sounds similar. Furthering this point, in one very special case, it is a song that is rather uncharacteristic of his "normal" sound that remains one of his most famous recordings, and one of the most well known in history. Having already established himself as the "renegade" of country music, and having sound success both musically, as well as adding to this image by playing prisons, in the late 1960's, there were few musicians who were as "badass" as the Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash. Having found great success with 1968's, At Folsom Prison, Cash prepared a new set and traveled across the country, recording an equally impressive set in February of 1969 at California's San Quentin State Prison. This performance, released as At San Quentin, finds Cash in a far more wild, and more raw state of being, and in the opinion of many, this live recording far surpasses its predecessor. Alongside his standard "jailhouse ballads," there is one song that is truly odd when compared to the rest of the set, and yet Cash would never find a bigger hit than he did with his first performance of the legendary song, "A Boy Named Sue."

There are so many unique aspects about both the song, and this specific performance of "A Boy Named Sue" that in many ways, it is not surprising that it became such a hit. First and foremost, one of the reasons for the stark change in Cash's live sound must be attributed to the fact that only a few months earlier, his longtime musical partner, and second half of "The Tennessee Two," guitarist Luther Perkins, passed away. Furthermore, it has been well documented that the final years of the 1960's found Cash at the most out-of-control point of his life, and this clearly spills over into this live performance. The final major factor at play in "A Boy Named Sue" being so unique is that the lyrics come from one of the most unexpected sources one could imagine: writer and poet Shel Silverstein. Best known for childrens' books like The Giving Tree and Where The Sidewalk Ends, Silverstein and Cash met at a "guitar pull" (a group writing/playing session), and the song was so fresh in Cash's setlist, that on the video from the San Quentin show, you can see Cash constantly referring back to the written lyrics in front of him. The newness of the song may also be the reason for the rather sparse musical arrangement, as it is little more than drums and guitar; and if you listen closely, you can hear a few moments here and there where the band is clearly not confident that they are playing the right progression. This may also be due to the fact that the musical arrangement is in fact a bit odd, and the A-A-C B-B-C rhyme scheme of the lyrics makes things even more tricky to follow for a band that had only learned the song a few days prior.

Regardless, the crowd is absolutely enamored with the tale, and it is largely due to the brilliant way in which Cash delivers the lyrics that make the song so iconic. The swagger with which Cash sings, as well as the "fire" in his voice is nothing short of extraordinary, especially considering the fact that the lyrics were so new to him. This amazing appearance of confidence is truly uncanny, yet it is also a key reason for the songs' success, as the story fits perfectly with Cash's style, and as the song progresses, one might almost be tempted to think the tale is autobiographical. When Johnny Cash throws lines about his constant fighting with those who taunted him for his name, leading to the line, "...I'd search the honky-tonks and bars, and kill that man who gave me that awful name...,"Cash fully realizes his "outlaw" persona, and it is surely one of the key factors in why the inmates enjoyed the song so much. Though "A Boy Named Sue" turns almost a bit heartfelt following "the fight," as there is a reconciliation between father and son, Cash keeps the attitude intact with the iconic line, "...'cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you "Sue." Though the crowd erupts at this, and it serves in many ways as the essence of Cash's swagger, radio stations did not like it, and the line was censored in a variety of ways for airplay. Regardless, the song still finds its way into regular rotation, and it is simply due to the fact that few songs have so perfectly captured an artists' style, as well as the fact that there is no other song in history that is quite like "A Boy Named Sue."

Though it is quite different from a majority of his catalog, the truth of the matter is, "A Boy Named Sue" went all the way to the second spot on the "Billboard Hot 100" charts, as well as topping both the country and "adult contemporary" charts. By far Johnny Cash's most successful single, the song has become a true classic of music, and across the globe, it remains one of the most recognizable songs ever recorded. From the sparse, meandering instrumentation to the completely unique storyline, the song has been covered countless times over the decades, as well as being referenced in countless TV shows and movies, perhaps nost notably in the 1996 film, Swingers. The recording found At San Quentin truly captures a special moment in music history, as in many ways, one can hear just how crazy Cash was at the time, as there are moments where he almost comes unhinged. Yet it is also due to this state of being that the style of "A Boy Named Sue" is what it is, as the brilliant swagger and carefree attitude that Cash brings to the song makes it far beyond anything else that had ever been recorded. Though one might wonder if this was the way Shel Silverstein had heard the song in his head, one sipyl cannot deny the power and awe that comes from Johnny Cash and this live recording of one of the most iconic songs in music history, "A Boy Named Sue."

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