Shel Silverstein: 'Giving Tree' Author Also Wrote 'A Boy Named Sue' For Johnny Cash

Icons | December 13, 2018

Photo of Shel Silverstein, 1968 (Photo by Alice Ochs/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Today, we remember the American writer Shel Silverstein more for his children’s books, such as The Giving Tree and his children’s poetry collections, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic, but during the 1960s and 1970s, he also wrote a number of catchy and memorable novelty songs, including "Cover of Rolling Stone," recorded by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and "A Boy Named Sue," recorded by Johnny Cash.

Silverstein was a Poet, Cartoonist, and Lyricist


Born in Chicago in 1930, Shel Silverstein was always interested in writing. In the 1950s as a member of the United States military stationed in Japan and Korea, Silverstein’s cartoons appeared in Stars and Stripes. Following his stint in the military, he worked as a cartoonist for several national publications, most notably Playboy, Sports Illustrated, and Look. Although he did publish books that were collections of his cartoons, he yearned to write longer pieces. 

A Quirky Songwriter


Shel Silverstein only studied music for a short time at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, before he dropped out, but he remained interested in music his whole life. He employed his mastery of storytelling into the songs that he wrote. Additionally, his work often had a humorist or sarcastic or poignant bend to it. 

A Boy Named Sue

Johnny Cash (abc.net.au)

Johnny Cash first performed the Shel Silverstein-penned song, A Boy Named Sue, on February 24, 1969, before a live audience of inmates at San Quentin State Prison while recording his album, At San Quentin. The unique song told the story of a boy who was given a girl’s name which led to him being bullied and tormented as a youth. He seeks his absentee father to get revenge for his unfortunate name, only to learn that his dad named him Sue so that he would grow up tough and strong, which he did. The song spent several weeks at the number two spot on the Billboard charts but could never break through to number one. It turned into Johnny Cash’s biggest hit. 

Cover of Rolling Stone

Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (imdb.com)

Silverstein wrote several other hit songs, including Put Another Log on the Fire, recorded by Tompall Glaser, Hey Loretta, for Loretta Lynn, and The Unicorn, made famous by The Irish Rovers. He worked with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show on a few songs, one of which was Cover of Rolling Stone. The pandering tune features a narrator who lists all of the accomplishments of his band but notes that they will only know that they’ve made it big when they are featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Of course, Rolling Stone magazine loved the free publicity…and the compliment. 

Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show did Make the Cover of Rolling Stone…Sort of


Cover of Rolling Stone was like a plea to the publishers of the country’s most renowned music industry magazine to put the band on its cover. The publishers of Rolling Stone showed their humorous side by playing along with the gag. On the March 29, 1973, issue of Rolling Stone, the cover featured a caricature drawing of the band with the headline “What’s Their Names Makes the Cover.” 

Shel Silverstein, Playwright

Actor James Cairns in Silverstein's "The Devil and Billy Markham" (contagioustheatre.co.za)

His love of storytelling led Shel Silverstein to write one full-length off-Broadway play, which he titled Look, Charlie: A Short History of the Pratfall. Afterward, he concentrated solely on one-act plays, most notably The Devil and Billy Markham, which was based on a story he wrote for Playboy magazine. Silverstein has more than 100 one-act plays to his name. 

Silverstein Claims He Was Forced into Writing Children’s Poetry


A master wordsmith, Silverstein never planned to write poetry for children. In fact, he had no background in poetry at all. He never studied poetry and never read any contemporary poetry. It was his friend, Tomi Ungerer, who realized his potential as a poet and forced Silverstein into a meeting with editors at Harper & Row who agreed that he should try his hand at poetry. In a way, his lack of background or education in poetry was an advantage. Silverstein was able to write in a unique, modern, conversational tone that made his work instantly popular. 

The Giving Tree


Silverstein’s 1964 children’s book, The Giving Tree, is undoubtedly his most famous work. The story of the relationship between a boy and a tree has been translated into multiple languages. The book has been praised as one of the best children’s books. The Giving Tree remains a top-selling book more than fifty years after its publication. 

More Children’s Poetry


Riding on the success of The Giving Tree, Silverstein continued to write for children. He released Where the Sidewalk Ends, a collection of short poems, in 1974, and another collection, titled A Light in the Attic, in 1981. Falling Up, published in 1996, was the final anthology of his poetry. A few years later, on May 10, 1999, Shel Silverstein died of a heart attack. 

Tags: Celebrities In The 1960s | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Rolling Stone Magazine | Shel Silverstein | The 1960s | The 1970s | The Giving Tree

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.