Like most people, you probably think of Silverstein as a children’s book author, and you’ve got that right. He became famous after the publication of one of his first children’s books, The Giving Tree. He cemented his reputation with three volumes of whimsical poetry for children: Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic and Falling Up. These books and other children’s fare sum up his legacy for many fans – they read the stories and poems to children and grandchildren, maybe even grew up on Silverstein’s poetry themselves. It’s a good thing to be remembered for, and Silverstein was proud of his children’s books.
But Silverstein’s career proved extremely diverse, and it neither began nor ended with his writings for children. He was a cartoonist for Playboy magazine and, earlier, for the Pacific Stars and Stripes military newspaper while he served in the U.S. Army. He wrote plays, typically for adults, penning more than 100 one-acts over the course of his career. He penned screenplays, and he even wrote whimsical poems directed distinctly toward the over-18 set; his adult work often tended toward the risqué.
You may not have seen any of his plays or read any of his ribald verses, but we bet you’ve heard some of his songs. Other singers made them famous, but many of them bear his unmistakable voice. Here are five Silverstein songs to listen to in celebration of his 85th birthday Sept. 25, 2015.
1. “A Boy Named Sue”
Yes, it’s true! “A Boy Named Sue” is probably Silverstein’s best-known song, the one that topped the charts and won a Grammy, and perhaps the only one that was ever recorded in a prison. Johnny Cash made Silverstein’s tune famous after recording it in his At San Quentin prison performance, and the song became a smash hit. It was inspired by childhood stories told by Silverstein’s close friend Jean Shepherd, the humorist who wrote and narrated the holiday classic movie A Christmas Story. When Cash recorded the song at San Quentin, he didn’t yet know it well; he was giving it a try, to see how it went over, and had to consult the lyric sheet frequently. The audience loved it – see them laughing over and over in the clip – and Cash made it a regular part of his repertoire.
see other songs via Shel Silverstein Set to Music | Legacy.com.