The story theme was inspired by the humourist Jean Shepherd, a close friend of Silverstein, who was often taunted as a friend because of his feminine-sounding name.
The song tells the tale of a young man’s quest for revenge on a father who abandoned him at three years of age and whose only contribution to his entire life was naming him ‘Sue’. Being commonly a feminine name, resulted in the young man suffering from a lifetime of ridicule and harassment by everyone he meets on his travels. Because of his rough experiences, the young man grows up tough and mean and becomes very streetwise; frequently relocating due to the shame he is constantly subjected to that his name give him. Angered by the embarrassment and abuse he has had to endure all his life, he swears that he will find and kill his father for giving him ‘that awful name’.
After much searching, Sue locates his father at a tavern in Gatlinburg, Tennessee during the middle of a summer season and confronts him saying, “My name is Sue! How do you do? Now. you’re gonna die!” This results in a vicious brawl between father and son that spills outdoors into the muddy street. After the two had beaten each other almost senseless, Sue’s father admits that he is the ’son of a bitch’ (in the Johnny Cash version of the song) that named him ’Sue’. The father justifies his action of naming his son ’Sue’ as being ‘an act of love’. Realising that because he would not be there for his son as he grew up, he wanted to help his boy the best way he knew how, ‘By learning to stand up for himself in the harshest of worlds where a man had to be tough in order to survive’. Sue’s father knew that the name he had given his son at birth would invite constant ridicule and enforce him to ‘toughen up or die’. Learning this, Sue makes peace with his father and they reconcile. With his lesson learned, Sue closes the song with a promise to name his son ‘Bill or George: anything but Sue’.
Silverstein later wrote a follow-up named ‘The Father of a Boy Named Sue on his 1978 ‘Songs and Stories’ in which he tells the old man's point of view of the story. The only known recording of the song by a major artist is by Shel Silverstein himself. Various cover artists have covered this song since then.
Whenever I hear this song, I immediately think about the relationship with my late father, particularly during my earlier years of development before I’d left school and commenced work. Although I was named ‘William’ (after my maternal grandfather), my father always insisted on calling me ‘Billy’ for the rest of his life (after his own brother Billy). Indeed, all my family came to call me ‘Billy’ thereafter, while the rest of the world know me as either Bill or William. I never heard of Billy or Billie being used as a feminine name until I heard of the American jazz singer Billie Holiday who died in 1959 and the film star Billie Whitelaw, who was born in Bradford and made her film debut in 1954, came on the scene. Billie Whitelaw was a film star of my teenage years, who frequently appeared as a prominent image in one of my ‘sweet dreams’. Ironically, Billy and Billie became a more common female name in later years, and I can honestly say that the only emotion that the name ever engendered for me was one of endearment and never estrangement.
Growing up the oldest of seven children in my father’s house was in its own way a tough upbringing. My father was a strict and stubborn man whose own upbringing had been in the poorest of Irish households and witnessed him leaving school partly educated and going into hard manual work before his 13th year of life. Dad came across to England during the ‘Second World War’ years, and after getting a job below ground in the Yorkshire coal pits, he secured family accommodation in a tied-property before sending for his wife and then three children to follow him.
All of his life, my father remained a man of honour who would give his solemn word by the shake of crossed palms; and never broke it, whatever the circumstances. He was the only man I ever knew who crossed a picket line ‘alone’ at the pit where he worked in Gomersal ‘because he was more concerned with putting food on his family’s table than sticking to his labour principles. I will always remember him saying that ‘Principles are for the rich not the proud. Poor men cannot afford them!’
Growing up as a young boy, I frequently received physical reprimand from my dad when I did wrong. I once came home from school with a black eye after having fought a bigger and better fighter than myself who was three-years older than me. My opponent was 12 years old and had picked on me. I was 9 years old and weighed two stone lighter. I thought that dad wouldn’t mind as he had always told me to stand up for myself. Instead of being proud that I’d followed his advice, my father pushed me out the door and invited me to find the victor and fight him again; and to keep on fighting him until I won or until he stopped bullying me. Two further fights were fought by me with the bigger boy who continued to make fun of me in front of his friends (we attended the same Catholic School in Heckmondwike), and even though he won both, I put up a good-enough defence each time. The ultimate result was that Johnnie Donohoe gave up bullying me and became a lifelong friend. My father’s advice had led to me gaining Johnnie’s admiration.
Between 8-11 years my father would take me up to a nearby disused coal pit most Sunday afternoons. Would then work on a slag heap belonging to the closed pit, where we would fill up a hundredweight potato sack with slag/shale that we picked. Afterwards, dad would throw the sack of slag over the crossbar of his bicycle. We did this week in and week out whatever the weather. I didn’t mind, as I knew I was helping to provide much needed substandard fuel for the fire on a cold night. As we walked the mile back home with the sack of shale, I would feel puffed up with pride with the knowledge that our home would be warmer in the coming week because me and dad had braved the cold to work on the slag heap. When we returned, mum would kiss me fondly, thanking me for my efforts, and telling me to wash and change while she made me and dad a hot cup of tea.
It was during my eleventh year of life when my illusion of having been a significant family provider was cruelly shattered. One day I noticed my father go to the shed and place a sack of shale we had previously spent a cold afternoon collecting from the pit hill on his bicycle crossbar. Dad started to push the bicycle down 8th Avenue and off the estate. I followed at a safe distance. I eventually saw dad dump the shale contents of the sack in a farmer’s field. I ran home feeling very angry and betrayed that all my hard effort on the slag heap had come to nothing.
I asked mum about the incident later and she persuaded my father to tell me why he’d done what he did. These were the days when a boy would not dare confront his father demanding an explanation. Besides, the word ‘demand’ wasn’t one that dad would tolerate being uttered to him. Anything that looked like or even had the whiff of a ‘demand’ would be instantly crushed.
My dad obliged my mum's request and told me the reason for his action. I will never forget his words, ’It was to toughen you up, Billy. Me and your mother want you all to grow up not being afraid of hard work. It doesn’t matter whether you work down the pit or sweep a factory floor, you do the job as well as you can. That way you will always have a job to go to and an employer who values you!’
There were so many examples of ways that my dad tried to toughen me up and make me stand on my own two feet. Between the ages of eight and eleven, I would be as light-fingered as they came and would be stealing and getting into trouble trespassing two or three times weekly. The local ‘Bobby’ would often knock on the door and inquire as to my whereabouts at a certain time of the week when an offence had been committed by a boy answering to my description. If my mother answered the door, she would always provide me with an instant alibi and inform the policeman that I’d been in the house all night before the Bobby had even time to tell her what I’d done, where and when! If it was dad who answered the door to the policeman, before the Bobby had the opportunity to say what I’d done, my dad what call me down the steps and say to the policeman, “Take him away and lock him up for the night. It’ll do him no harm!”
None of you will be surprised in the slighjtest when I tell you that dad’s hero was the film star John Wayne, from whose film’s dad got his two favourite sayings that he would constantly quote whenever he sought to identify the secret to ‘manliness’:
“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do!”
“Never apologise. It’s a sign of weakness.”
While I could never subscribe to such sentiments today, their constant ringing in my ear were an undeniable part of ‘how I was supposed to judge manliness’.
Dad might have turned in his grave had he known that his cinematic tough-man hero, John Wayne had been named ‘Marion Robert Morrison’ at birth? Or perhaps he did know and decided to call me ‘Billy’ (to toughen me up), long before the song ‘A boy named Sue’ was released in 1969. The bottom line is whether it was the forced fights with Johnnie Donohoe, the weekly filling of the sacks of slag and shale at the disused coal mine pit-head, or indeed calling me ‘Billy’, something certainly toughened me up for my life ahead.
Love and peace. Bill xxx