Forgiveness as an act of kindness to yourself / Song Analysis #64: Johnny Cash – A Boy Named Sue

I bought pastels at the beginning of the year, a good 2 months before COVID shut everything down around us in the D.C. area.  I’m mentally inclined and left-brained, probably genetically hard-wired to be so.  It didn’t help that I had a 7th grade art teacher who wanted to flunk me and made fun of my lack of natural ability in front of the whole class.  Outside of creative writing, I’ve struggled with other forms of artistic expression.  Art isn’t logical, it’s meant to be emotional.  Working with pastels has slowly gotten easier the more I let go of making things “look good” or “look right” and go with my gut on what I want to draw.

Going with your gut, I imagine, is something you need to do often if you’re a songwriter.  I’ve tried writing a melody before, and I just can’t.  I’ve always been amazed with the way a songwriter can craft the melody, background instrumentation, and lyrics and then put them together cohesively to make a song.  While I have no doubt that experience can make you a better writer and you can certainly hone your craft as time goes on, I have my reasons to believe that the skills you need to be a good songwriter – and an engaging entertainer, for that matter – are divine gifts that are a part of you when you’re born.  It’s not something you can easily pick up.  You either have them, or you don’t.

When I started out as a music blogger, I was quite sniffy about artists who didn’t write (or at least cowrite) the songs that they recorded and performed.  I am taking a slight step back from that position, having not realized until I did the research that in today’s song up for analysis, the very famous performer didn’t write what I consider one of the best he ever delivered live.  When I first heard the song when I was young, I only picked up on the humor.  I didn’t think about the moral of the story, which I will discuss below.

Title: ‘A Boy Named Sue’
Where to find it: ‘At St. Quentin’ and ‘A Boy Named Sue’ single (1969, Columbia)
Performed by: Johnny Cash
Words by: Shel Silverstein

Well 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”

Well, he must o’ thought that is quite a joke
And it got a lot of laughs from a’ lots of folk
It seems that 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”

Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean
My fist got hard and my wits got keen
Roam from town to town to hide my shame
But I made me a vow to the moon and stars
I’d search the honky-tonks and bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name

Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
And I just hit town and my throat was dry
I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew
At an old saloon on a street of mud
There at a table, dealing stud
Sat the dirty, mangy dog that named me “Sue”

Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
From a worn-out picture that my mother’d had
And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye
He was big and bent and gray and old
And I looked at him and my blood ran cold
And I said, “My name is ‘Sue!’ How do you do!?
Now you gonna die!”
Yeah, that’s what I told ’em

Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes
And he went down, but to my surprise
He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear
But I busted a chair right across his teeth
And we crashed through the wall and into the street
Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer

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
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

He said, “Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I know 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”

Yeah, he said, “Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and 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”
Yeah, what could I do, what could I do?

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
Called him my Pa, and he called me his son
And I come away with a different point of view
And I think about him, now and then
Every time I try and every time I win
And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him…
Bill or George, any damn thing but Sue! I still hate that name! Yeah!

By this time, I think anyone who is a fan of Johnny Cash has seen the 2005 biopic Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.  While the film dramatically grips you, I was glad to get better insight on the Man in Black last year, and in a special way.  2019 was the eighth year in a row I went to South by Southwest (SXSW) as press for There Goes the Fear.

On my last morning in Austin, I set aside time for a treat: the first and only film I’d ever see during all my times at SXSW, and I went to see it with my good friend Mark Gordon of Score Draw Music.  Mark is a cinephile (I am not) so he was surprised I have never seen a film during SXSW in all these years.  If I was going to pick a good one, I don’t think I could have done much better than The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash.  I wrote about it here for TGTF if you’d like to read that piece.  Even better, and to some absolute shock, you can now watch the film for free, with the occasional ad, here on YouTube.  Be sure to have some tissues on hand.  I came out of the Alamo Ritz with tears streaming down my cheeks.

It was to my surprise to learn that one of Cash’s more humorous songs, ‘A Boy Named Sue’, was one he did not pen himself.  It was written by Shel Silverstein, who is probably best known to American people my age as the author of Where the Sidewalk Ends, a book of poems that was read to us as children.  Silverstein was a humorist, so it makes sense that if he was going to write a song, it would be something with a twist, and it would make us laugh.  A plausible explanation on how Cash wound up with Silverstein’s song is here.  If there was ever a more perfect song written by another man for Johnny Cash to sing, show me.

If you’re not familiar with the song, you’ve now read the lyrics above.  You may have noticed that the words read like a poem, not a song, as there is no chorus.  In a nutshell, Silverstein wrote the story in this song to show how a feminine name given to a boy led to the boy turning into a man who is tough as nails.  All his life, Sue had to answer to taunts and bullying by other men who couldn’t be sympathetic to another named Sue.  Let’s be honest, who would be sympathetic?  I think we’ve all faced bullying or at least ribbing from someone over our own names, even if it was good-natured joking from our friends.  “Ching Chong Chinaman” ranks up there as the most unimaginative insult I received in the lunchroom in grade school.

The twist in the story comes in after the first third of the song.  The protagonist goes into a bar for what should be a normal bottle of beer.  Instead, he serendipitously comes across the man he recognizes, “I knew that snake was my own sweet dad / From a worn-out picture that my mother’d had / And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye”, his own father.  Sue is still angry about being named Sue, and he’s finally getting the chance to let the man who gave him the name have it.  A violent tussle between father and son ensues.

Before Sue can beat his father to a bloody pulp or death, the father speaks up and rationalizes his choice of name for his son.  His explanation is that because he knew he wouldn’t be taking care of Sue and watching him grow up, he gave him a name that he knew would draw ridicule and would therefore toughen him up.  In other words, this was an act of being “cruel to be kind.” 

While in the moment and faced with this hard truth of tough love, the son “come[s] away with a different point of view”, like he’s been smacked in between the eyes with this knowledge now revealed.  He accepts that the act of his father naming him Sue wasn’t simply a cruel joke leveled on him by his deadbeat dad but instead, it was an act of love.  Sue gets overwhelmed with emotion, and the two reconcile.

The song ends on another humorous note.  Sue shouts and insists that if he ever had an opportunity to have a son and name him, he’d never give him a name like Sue: “Bill or George, any damn thing but Sue! I still hate that name!”  As much as he now understands why his father did what he did, he isn’t the same person as his father.  I like this because it shows that despite all the bullying he received through his life, Sue is human and an individual and can take a joke.  He can look back at his name with a laugh, but he also knows he’d never do what his father did to him to his own son.

I wanted to write about this song after thinking about it for a good month or so.  I’ve been through some rough experiences in my life, and one of the things you’re taught in therapy is to forgive the person who hurt you.  This can be hard to wrap your head around, because depending on who the person was, how the hurt was perpetrated, and if the hurt was repeated again and again, you may not be in the right head space or heart space to forgive that person.

There is a key to forgiveness that I feel should be emphasized especially.  If you have a conversation with someone and tell them you forgive them, the response you receive back may or may not give you the closure that you may feel you need.  You saying that you forgive your brother for burning your prized Marvel comic books when you two were kids may be met with your brother’s contrition.  Or it might not, with your brother not feeling sorry or taking any responsibility for what he did.  The key to forgiveness is making the act a compassionate one towards yourself.

By accepting what they did in an objective manner, you are freeing yourself from the negative self-talk about the incident in which you got hurt and where you were the victim.  I use the words “objective manner” because it’s important to discern between forgiving someone because you can let go of what they did to you vs. forgiving someone and meaning that you are okay with how badly they treated you.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you condone your wife cheating on you or your father physically abusing you when you were young.  It needs to mean that you have reached a point in your healing where you can look at the incident as “it is what it is,” where you can live in the present and move forward with your life instead of staying shackled to your past.  When you can let go of the pain, you will feel so much lighter.

If forgiving a certain someone sounds impossible to you, then you haven’t addressed the hurt and worked through it enough to come to the place of forgiveness.  The process is both mental and emotional, and you need to have both on the same page.  Also, most of us don’t get a neat apology and explanation like Sue did from his father in this song.  Human beings are complex creatures, and I think it bears repeating that “…every man is fighting a hard battle that may not be visible.  What is done to us often times isn’t because of who we are but what battles the other person has brewing in their head.  Be sovereign in your mind, and forgive others for their actions when you can.  Your body will thank you for it.

‘A Boy Named Sue’ was released as part of Johnny Cash’s live ‘At St. Quentin’ album, and it’s touching to watch him play it in front of the prison inmates.  (The version in the first video AT at the bottom of this post omits the second stanza of the song.  The second video is the full version on record.)  They could relate to what Cash was singing about because he had been jailed himself and how he sang, the stories felt believable that he had lived them.  If you’ve been given a gift like a voice and the skills to write a good song, use them for good.

…Ring of Fire?

You know that teacher I told you about when I started this post?  I haven’t thought of her much since my childhood.  However, when I picked the pastels up this past week, the memory of her embarrassing me in front of my peers came roaring back.  I was reminded that even if I thought I’d forgotten this terrible moment when I was 11, the moment of humiliation was still in me, subconsciously telling me the lie that I would never be able to draw something anyone would be proud of.  I’ve forgiven her for wanting to flunk me and the way she made me feel: that I was hopeless at art, and I was the problem.  There was never anything wrong with me to begin with, even though she said there was.  To come to that place of peace is huge.

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