Most of us know Shel Silverstein as the playful author of Where The Sidewalk Ends (from 1974) and A Light In The Attic (1981), among other classics. He’s beloved by children everywhere as the poet who actually wrote for children, not their parents. (How many children’s writers would publish a poem like “Little Abigail And The Beautiful Pony” – the tale of a little girl who dies of heartbreak because her parents won’t buy her a pony – and advise the reader to read it “to your folks when they won’t buy you something you want”?) But Shel Silverstein was a giant of a man who did much more diverse work than most of us realize. He was a poet, a cartoonist, and a playwright. He published books for adults, wrote for Playboy magazine (and lived at the Playboy Mansion), and co-wrote the film Things Change with David Mamet.
But this here is a music blog and, you guessed it, Silverstein also made music which was, just like his writings, widespread and varied. I think the only way to cover even a small selection of his work is to just give you a few highlights: His song “A Boy Named Sue” was made popular by Johnny Cash, originally recorded on Cash’s 1969 At San Quentin album. Johnny Cash sang another of Silverstein’s songs, “25 Minutes To Go”, at Folsom Prison (as well as on a previous album). Then he wrote “One’s On The Way”, “Here I Am Again” (both in 1972), and “Hey Loretta” (1974) for country goddess Loretta Lynn, all three of which provided her with Top 5 hits in the Billboard Country charts. Around the same time period, he contributed to the award-winning Free To Be … You And Me album (1972) and TV special (1974). In 1984, he won a Best Children’s Album Grammy for his recording of Where The Sidewalk Ends. And in 1990, Silverstein was nominated for an Oscar for the music he co-wrote for the film Postcards From The Edge.
Johnny Cash – 25 Minutes To Go
Loretta Lynn – One’s On The Way
Tom Smothers – Helping (from Free To Be … You And Me)
He is probably best known for his involvement with Dr. Hook (And The Medicine Show). Dr. Hook, a bar band from New Jersey, was discovered by a scout looking for a band to record Silverstein’s songs. Their partnership continued through several albums; he wrote pretty much all of Dr. Hook’s songs, including their most famous hit, “The Cover Of The Rolling Stone” (1972). Which makes perfect sense – the poem “Rock ‘N’ Roll Band” (from A Light In The Attic) is basically a G-rated version of the Dr. Hook song:
If we were a rock ‘n’ roll band,
The people would all kiss our hands.
We’d be millionaires and have extra long hair,
If we were a rock ‘n’ roll band.
(“Rock ‘N’ Roll Band”)
Well, we’re big rock singers, we’ve got golden fingers,
And we’re loved everywhere we go.
We sing about beauty and we sing about truth,
At ten thousand dollars a show.
(“The Cover Of The Rolling Stone”)
Dr. Hook – The Cover Of The Rolling Stone
Of course, Shel Silverstein recorded his own music and, after so many projects where he worked behind the scenes, it’s lovely to hear his voice. I suppose I probably made up a voice for him, after reading his poetry for so many years, and it’s almost what I imagined. It’s not exactly a skillful voice, but it’s kind and full of heart. Exactly as I like to imagine he must’ve been. If you’d like to hear him for yourself, Amazon has two free downloads available, from Silverstein’s 1979 album, The Great Conch Train Robbery:
Considering all of this (and more) incredible work, it seems reasonable to call Shel Silverstein a legend. Sadly, he died in 1999 at the age of 68, though it seems to me that he should’ve been allowed to live forever. A proper biography – A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein – will be released this coming November. I’m looking forward to it like I look forward to new Harry Potter books. Given how many bits and pieces I gathered from various websites and books without any definitive source of information, it’s about time somebody took this project on.
If you’re interested in knowing a bit more (especially about Shel Silverstein as a writer), Lisa Rogak (author of the upcoming biography) wrote this lovely article, and The Shel Silverstein Archive has quite a large selection of reviews and articles. Also, be sure to check out his official site, which claims it’s for kids, but we all know better.