I Write The Songs: Shel Silverstein

Portrait_of_Shel_Silverstein_in_c._1964_by_Jerry_Yulsman

Sheldon Allan Silverstein was born in Chicago, Illinois, September 25, 1930, and would grow up to be something of a Renaissance Man. Writer, playwright, cartoonist, poet and songwriter, he was successful in all these fields, though is best known in literary circles for his children’s books and, in the world of music, for his songs largely written for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, though a number of prominent artists had major hits with Silverstein songs, not least of which was Johnny Cash with ‘A Boy Named Sue’!

Silverstein grew up in the Logan Square neighbourhood of Chicago, where he attended Roosevelt High School. He went on to attend the University of Illinois, from which he was expelled, and then enrolled in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which he was attending when he was drafted into the U.S. Army; he served in Japan and Korea. So far, so average for an American boy growing up at that time, but there was nothing average about Shel Silverstein when it came to creativity.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Silverstein and his work is the sheer volume of output over a wide range of creative industries. He published over twenty books, predominantly children’s stories but also including volumes of poetry, adult stories and collections of his cartoons. His books have been translated into almost 50 different languages and have sold over 20 million copies.  He wrote a number of scripts for various animated shorts and other TV shows and co-wrote the screenplay for the film ‘Things Change’ with David Mamet. He wrote over 100 one-act plays, many of which were staged in small New York theatres, and was a frequent contributor to Playboy Magazine (and a regular visitor to the Playboy Mansion!). As a musician and performer, including tribute albums and posthumous releases, there are 17 music albums that bear the Silverstein name.

As a songwriter, his first association will always be with Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, not least because he wrote all the songs on their first two album releases, but he wrote for and with a number of other artists, including Tompall Glaser, Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, and Kris Kristofferson. It emerged that he wrote the final verse for his good friend Steve Goodman’s song ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately?’ but refused to consider it a co-write as his contribution was “so small” and he refused a writing credit. Silverstein was an accomplished musician and also wrote original music for several films, playing guitar, piano, saxophone, and trombone on the various scores he composed. He won two Grammy Awards (1970 ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and 1985 ‘A Light in the Attic’) as well as receiving nominations for both the Golden Globe Awards and the Oscars.

What I’ve always found fascinating about Silverstein is that, while many of his best-known songs have an air of novelty about them, they’re often based on his own experiences or those of close friends. Two good examples of this are ‘Sylvia’s Mother’, a major hit for Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, and Johnny Cash’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’. ‘Sylvia’s Mother’ is, in fact, autobiographical and based on Silverstein’s own experience when trying to revive a failed romance. The woman in question was Sylvia Pandolfi (surname changed to Avery for the song – I’d guess Pandolfi didn’t scan so well!). When Silverstein rang her home he was answered by her mother, who calmly thanked him for calling but told him that Sylvia wasn’t interested in rekindling the romance and would be moving away to start a new life elsewhere (In fact, she ended up as a museum curator in Mexico City); Silverstein was disappointed that he wasn’t able to talk to Sylvia and get her to change her mind, but he also realised that the story would make for a good song; one that gave Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show a top ten hit on most of the major charts worldwide! Similarly, ‘A Boy Named Sue’ was inspired by the experiences of his friend and fellow writer and humorist, Jean Parker Shepherd Jnr,( also known as Shep) who was teased as a child for his feminine sounding name, though the use of Sue was taken from male Tennessee Attorney, Sue K Hicks, who had been a prosecutor in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Silverstein was always a clever and well-informed writer who seemed to have an endless source of unusual anecdotes on which to base his songs.

Silverstein died at his home in Key West, Florida, of a heart attack on May 10, 1999, at the age of 68. He was a songwriter who rarely seemed to get the full attention he deserved, perhaps because of the novelty nature of many of his songs, but delve beyond songs like ‘Cover of The Rolling Stone’ and ‘I Got Stoned and I Missed It’ and you discover songs like ‘Queen of the Silver Dollar’ and ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’, songs that cleverly shine a light on the human condition. Silverstein could write to make you think as well as to make you laugh, and that’s a valuable quality in any writer.

For me, Shel Silverstein is one of the great songwriters of Americana music; an everyman writer with a song for everyone. Perhaps his style of songwriting is best summed up by the chorus of one of his own songs –

“Lullabies, legends and lies and lies
Lullabies, legends and lies
I’ll sing you a song then I’ll shuffle along
With my lullabies, legends and lies.”


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About Rick Bayles 243 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!

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