Shel Silverstein died in 1999, leaving behind a legacy of outstanding children's books and hundreds of songs, many that were based on his poems. His work was funny, irreverent and imaginative. Mitch Myers in Shel's nephew and author of Silverstein Around the World, which contains anecdotes about his travels.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I was hoping to speak with you about the songs of Shel Silverstein.
Mitch Myers: I think I could talk about that with some knowledge.
Songfacts: Yeah, I imagine. Now, structurally, what is it about his poems that make it so that they become these amazing songs?
Mitch: Well, I think you have to back up a little bit and look at the fact that Shel was writing songs early on. His first album that he recorded, the majority of it was not original material, was called Hairy Jazz which was recorded in 1959 on Electra. So although Shel is most famous for his poetry and his children's books, and the most successful of those besides Giraffe, The Giving Tree, are poetry books, like A Light In The Attic, Where The Sidewalk Ends and Falling Up, Shel had a way with words that went beyond poems. And it was probably more of a songwriter first and became and evolved into the children's poet that he is best known for being.
Mitch: So besides that first record in 1959, there were subsequent records in the early 1960s where Shel was writing not just songs for himself and recordings for himself, but they were actually starting to turn into songs for other people. He was covered by artists as diverse at the Brothers Four and Judy Collins. Gram Parsons demoed one of his... a Civil War song called "Hey Nelly Nelly." And I think Judy Collins had a song, perhaps the same song, on her third record, and it was also on her live album. And there people like the Smothers Brothers.
But for every novelty artist that would record one, there were serious musicians or just more straightforward artists that recorded music and songs that chose Shel's material. He lampooned a lot of folk music in the early 1960s, kind of tongue-in-cheeky folk tunes, and there were even a couple of records that the Serendipity Singers, which were kind of like one of those that was parodied in A Mighty Wind, big group of men and women who sang hearty folks songs and looked very straight and collegiate. And some of those songs actually turned into some of the children's poems. So, he has had a great history of being a songwriter, and eventually, I think in 1964 or 1965 he recorded a record for Atlantic Records called Inside Folk Songs. And the producer of record was Jerry Wexler of great renown. He had produced people from Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan to Ray Charles, etcetera. And when I did speak with Mr. Wexler about some other things, and asked him about that record, he said he did it as a favor to Howie Richmond, who was the president of the Richmond Organization, they were song publishers. Besides administering all of Shel's songs, they administered some songs written by Pete Townshend and The Who in the early days. And probably the other most famous songwriter they had on their roster, which they still administrate his songs today, is Woody Guthrie. And the great quote that Jerry gave me, or the most memorable comment he made – because I don't think he remembered much about the session, in lieu of the fact that he probably produced thousands of sessions – was that only about 500 people probably went out and bought that record, Inside Folk Songs, but that each one of them was a songwriter in Nashville. And I guess what he was alluding to was the fact that Shel became a very popular songwriter in Nashville, and Shel had, through his relationships that he developed at Playboy magazine – Shel had started writing with Playboy in 1956 – and by the '60s he was somewhat of a celebrity, if not around the world, at least in Chicago, and to the readers of Playboy magazine. But through his work at Playboy, he was introduced to Chet Atkins, and he became very, very, very dear friends with Chet Atkins, and another major Nashville player in the mid-'60s by the name of Harlan Howard. And Harlan was a very, very famous songwriter in his own right, and if you took Chet Atkins' name and Harlan Howard's name and you look at all the songs, all the records that their names were on, you could probably fill a book.
And I think that Shel was a great student. Anything that he was interested in, he would pursue it quite vigorously and quite completely. And I think what he did, and as I remember him telling it to me and repeating it, was that he went down to Nashville, and other people told me that when they would come into the office or they would go down to Music Row, Shel would already be sitting outside waiting for someone like Harlan Howard to show up, or Tompall Glaser, or any number of the Nashville cats at that time. He had dozens and hundreds of songs up his sleeve, and he was constantly looking for feedback and for publishing and finding people to perform these songs. He wrote songs like "Hey Loretta" which was covered by Loretta Lynn. She also made famous the song called "Here In Topeka," I think the formal title is called "One's On The Way."
Songfacts: Yeah, where it's set in Topeka.
Mitch: Yeah, "well, here in Topeka," this is happening, that's happening, and one's on the way. And so Loretta Lynn had at least two or three hits with Shel's songs. From what I understand she didn't like the song "Hey Loretta," she hated it. But they said, "Hey, it's custom made, it's perfect for you." I don't know if he wrote it with her in mind, but the logic and the wisdom of her covering it prevailed, and she certainly had some success with it. But besides that, obviously Shel had a huge hit in 1969 with Johnny Cash performing "A Boy Named Sue." And that I think reached #2 in the Pop charts only to be beaten by "Honky Tonk Women" by the Rolling Stones.
Songfacts: Yeah, so what's the story behind the "Boy Named Sue"?
Mitch: The way that I've understood it and the way I have tried to tell it in the past is basically in those days in Nashville, and for all the people that would visit, the most fun that anyone really could have would be to go over to someone's house and play music. And they would do what one would call a "guitar pull," where you grabbed a guitar and you played one of your new songs, then someone else next to you would grab it and do the same, and there were people like Johnny Cash or Joni Mitchell, people of that caliber in the room.
Shel sang his song "Boy Named Sue," and Johnny's wife June Carter thought it was a great song for Johnny Cash to perform. And not too long after that they were headed off to San Quentin to record a record - Live At San Quentin - and June said, "Why don't you bring that Shel song with you." And so they brought the lyrics. And when he was on stage he performed that song for the first time ever, he performed it live in front of that captive audience, in every sense of the word. He had to read the lyrics off of the sheet of paper that was at the foot of the stage, and it was a hit. And it wasn't touched up, it wasn't produced or simulated. They just did it, and it stuck. And it rang. I would say that it would qualify in the realm of novelty, a novelty song. Shel had a knack for the humorous and the kind of subversive lyrics. But they also were so catchy that people could not resist them.
And I think that was most illuminated by the 1970s when he was enjoying the great success he had with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. On the first couple of records, the first one, Dr. Hook, and the second one's called Sloppy Seconds, and perhaps even into the third record, Belly Up, Shel wrote, like, 99% of the material on the first two records, if not all of it. And then the third record, maybe only three-quarters. And then his contributions began to diminish over the time as the group became more established and less tied to Shel's songwriting identity. Although they had their greatest successes with Shel, and both Dennis Locorriere and Ray Sawyer, the two lead singers, would testify to that, and still make a living singing songs. And I don't think they can get through a performance, either of them, without having to perform some of the songs that Shel wrote for them back in those times.
Songfacts: Going back to the "Boy Named Sue" quickly, he did a follow-up to that song, didn't he?
Mitch: Yeah. And that was more in the adult realm: "Father Of A Boy Named Sue." And he wrote a song called "Sylvia's Father." At that time, they were obviously enjoying great success, and mostly having fun with it. "Father Of A Boy Named Sue" certainly couldn't be perceived as being any more serious than the original, and it certainly is the father's explanation of how the boy came to get the name. But it's also a little risqué in its final verse.
Songfacts: Did anybody record that?
Mitch: Shel did.
Songfacts: Okay. And was Loretta Lynn really his first kind of breakthrough big-name artist that recorded?
Mitch: I think that his first real hit record was "The Unicorn," which was performed by the Irish Rovers.
Songfacts: So that was back then.
Mitch: Yes, it was in the 1960s.
Songfacts: So how did the whole "Unicorn Song" come about?
Mitch: Well, the way I like to portray it is isn't it interesting that this… at this point, what seems to be a timeless Irish folk song was written by a Jewish guy from Chicago. And Shel had written it and recorded it. But like I said, the Richmond Organization, I mean, back then a publishing house, not everyone was a singer/songwriter. Not everyone wrote their own material. They were looking for material. And it was just a good fit.
It was a very straightforward, simple, lovely melody, and the timeless folksiness of it was complemented by the Irish Rovers', you know, I'm not going to say "accent," but their sound. You know, their very, very ethnic sound just made it that much more magical. Many people think that Shel wrote "Puff The Magic Dragon." I'm like, no, no, no, it's a unicorn. And people get his songs confused with Allan Sherman's on the novelty end.
But Shel was also a great… and not to digress from the "Unicorn," but he was also a great collaborator, and he co-wrote many of his songs with many, many different people. He co-wrote with Kris Kristofferson in Nashville, and they had success with a couple of songs that were recorded, one by Jerry Lee Lewis, another one by Waylon Jennings. They wrote "The Taker," a country song.
Also, according to some of the guys in Dr. Hook and some of the other people that benefited from collaborating with him, if somebody threw in a line or two, they would get full credit. If there were two people in the room, Shel and this other person, and one person helped out with a line, Shel would give them half the songwriting credit. And if there were three people it would always be split three ways. And Dennis Locorriere, the individual that was the lead singer on "Sylvia's Mother," had a hand in a song called "A Couple Of Years On You," which was recently recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis on his comeback record as a duet with Willie Nelson. And it was originally recorded, I think by Willie, back in the day. Bob Dylan covered it in the movie Hearts Of Fire. It was a movie where Dylan played a rock star and he performed songs, and he sang a version of it. Although it was not on the soundtrack record, Dylan aficionados know that he covered a Shel Silverstein song.
And there's a nice anecdote in Clinton Heylin's biography, Behind The Shades Of Dylan, where they talk about how Bob was out in California with a woman that was an employee of Columbia Records, which was his record label, and that was also Shel's' record label at that particular time. Clive Davis had signed both Dr. Hook and Shel to recording contracts. And she took Bob to Shel's houseboat and Bob played Shel all the songs on the record that he was going to record, called Blood On The Tracks. And I think Bob was very well aware of Shel's presence even in the early '60s, when they were both macking around Greenwich Village, they had many, many, many mutual friends, and knew, you know, how important each other were.
Songfacts: You've studied a lot of music in your career – what do you think it was about his songwriting that made it so special?
Mitch: Well, it was a combination of being very honest and very funny, often. And even without the humor, I think that there was an insight into human nature, and a sensitivity that some people would find maudlin or sentimental, but then it would strike a chord with the general population.
He was not an elitist. He wrote very simply, his songs would have three or four chords, they could be played on a guitar or a piano. Certainly there were people who took his songs and made grander arrangements of them. Musicians, and Dr. Hook, and Ronnie Haffkine, the producer, they all had pretty good ears, and you know, it balanced out perfectly. But they were very straightforward, and they hit home. I mean, either you liked them or you didn't.
Songfacts: Just getting back to "The Unicorn Song"…
Songfacts: There seems to be kind of a religious undertone to that song, and I didn't know if there was anything more to this. I guess you can analyze these songs a bunch of ways, but you can probably tell me if there's more meaning to certain songs or others.
Mitch: I would caution anyone from reading too much into anything of Shel's, like The Giving Tree, as an example. I mean the tree, and the relationship between the boy and the tree. That story has been analyzed a thousand different ways, and the tree has been interpreted as representing a maternal figure, and the ending has been interpreted as being very sad, or very, very optimistic, or very, very accurate in the way that life is, and how people behave.
But going back to your thing about the "Unicorn," obviously, by taking the context of Noah and the Ark, we're talking about a biblical story there, so if that's your allusion to a religious kind of template, I would say that Shel was more of a student of fables and legends and folk tales more than he was trying to deliver any kind of a religious message. And I think he found using these common universal folk tales was an efficient way to communicate to a large group of people.
Songfacts: Okay, that's kind of what I'm trying to get at, Mitch. If there's any way to figure out where he drew inspiration from, where these songs even came from.
Mitch: Yes, I think that he was a great student of literature, as much as a great student of songwriting, and folk tales, and legends, like Pecos Bill or Babe the Blue Ox, and Paul Bunyon, things like that. You have to remember that Shel was born in 1930, so then when he was a young boy growing up in the '30s and the '40s, those were the types of stories that would be presented and suitable in surrounding any child's upbringing.
So those were the kind of things, I think, like many, many people, we get a lot of information from the things that struck us when we were at our most receptive time in our lives. I think as an adult, he took it to another level by pursuing every different version of every different folk tale. If we took Paul Bunyon or Pecos Bill for an example, I'm sure he read dozens of different versions of those stories to really get the essence and look at the differences, as well as the similarity between them. And not just American folk tales. I mean, his collection of children's books has folk tales, umpteen hundreds if not thousands of books, and so many devoted to folk tales of different countries all over the world. If you were growing up in the '30s, the books that you're going to be reading, if they weren't brand new, that meant that they were written in the late 1800s or the early 1900s. And so you came from a generation that had not a simpler, but a different perspective on life.
Songfacts: And the Loretta Lynn song, the "Topeka" song, here he is singing about a pregnant housewife in the Midwest.
Mitch: Barefoot and pregnant, yeah.
Songfacts: Yeah, so it sounds like there's also examples where he had some ability to do what many songwriters to, which is to take the place of a character.
Mitch: Yes, he was a storyteller. It's interesting, you're right about his depicting of this woman who was kind of in the middle of her life, and that was being a mother and a housewife and not much else.
And then contrasted with "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan," which Shel wrote, and was used in two different movies. Most notably Thelma And Louise, and most notably performed by Marianne Faithfull, and there's a woman who was in her middle class home and everything is fine in terms of comfort and aesthetics, and she goes crazy. Again, a different reaction. She was never depicted as being pregnant, but a family woman trapped in this suburban lifestyle with a different type of a reaction. So yes, as a storyteller, he was able to take the position, first and third person, and convey a story in a very straightforward way, and still be melodic, and still be truthful, and also have a hook. I mean, Shel didn't just write songs – he wrote hit songs. I mean, they sold. They were popular. Whether it be country or pop charts, they resonated with people, and they still remember them.
Songfacts: So you feel the hook-writing ability is one of the things that made this…
Mitch: Yeah, the verses were clever, and the choruses closed the deal. When you hear the title "One's On The Way," that could mean a few different things. And when you hear it once or twice in the song, you're very clear on the use of that phrase.
Songfacts: Marie Laveau, was that a real person?
Mitch: Well, I think that's a great question, because that goes back to my example of exactly what I was describing.
Marie Laveau has been described and conjured in history books and legends of voodoo women in New Orleans for decades and decades. And all the research points to the fact that there was a Marie Laveau, and she lived at a certain time, and she was supposed to be a witch of certain powers. But beyond that, she was repeated in fable-type proportions in song and in oral storytelling for as long as I can remember. And I don't know how far back it goes, to the early 1900s or whenever, but the legend of Marie Laveau has been repeated in books, in song, in poems, every way you can. So Shel's was just one more version of this same character, putting her in a particular situation, and that was probably made most famous by the version that was recorded by Bobby Bare. And I bring up Bobby Bare to make a second point, that in Nashville at that time there were not that many people that would do a whole album of anybody's songs. I mean, they would take the best song written by Even Stevens, or the best song written by Willie Nelson, and you know, or Don Williams, or anyone that you're apt to name. And a lot of the popular songs made the rounds.
But Shel and Bobby had a very unique relationship, not unlike what Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings did a whole album of Billy Joe Shaver's songs, as I recall, at one particular point. But not very often did a particular artist become a sole interpreter of a particular songwriter. And Bobby did that with Shel on more than one album, the most famous album being Lullabies, Legends, and Lies, which is being reissued by Columbia Records, Sony Legacy. They're expanding it to be a 2-CD, and there's a live concert as well as the original sessions, which were on a double album at that time, all of Shel's songs.
He did a whole album of children's songs, Bobby Bare did, called Singing In The Kitchen, they did a concept album called Hard Time Hungry, which was about living in America but not being rich or famous. Kind of like the true blue collar underbelly of America. And there were other records as well, and Bobby was one of Shel's greatest interpreters. He was also one of Shel's greatest friends.
And just one of many anecdotes, goes back to one of the songs they had a hit with, which was nominated for a Grammy, called "Daddy, What If." And it featured a 5-year-old Bobby Bare, Jr., and the song goes back and forth within the song with the son asking the father questions, " Daddy, what if…" you know, "the sun doesn't rise today?" or something like that. And then the father would give an answer. It was basically about the relationship between the father and the son. And that was Bare Jr.'s first hit when he was 5, and now he's a recording artist in his own right, and always begins his concerts with a song by Shel. And he considers Shel one of his mentors, as far as songwriting and discipline are concerned.
Songfacts: Were you around Shel when you were a child?
Mitch: Yeah, he was my uncle, and visited our family whenever he was in Chicago. He had a good relationship with my mom and his mother.
Songfacts: What was he like when you were a kid?
Mitch: He was bigger than life. Very strong character. You've got to remember, when I was a little kid, he was coming back from wherever, he was living at the Playboy Mansion, he had a houseboat in Sausalito, he was traveling the world for a variety of different reasons, collaborating with all these incredible artists, not just songwriters and singers, but he co-wrote screenplays with David Mamet, he was a very brilliant, brilliant artist, and sadly I'd have to use the word "renaissance man," because there's not another good word to describe it. He was a pretty heavy-duty cat.
Songfacts: I just thought it would be interesting to find out from somebody who, as a child, read the works of Shel, what it was like for you.
Mitch: Well, when I was reading it, he wasn't the famous popular children's author that he was now. But he was always a celebrity to us. He was an incredible person, and he was very, very strong, compassionate, intense man. And he shared himself with us quite willingly.
Songfacts: "The Mermaid Song," is there anything you can tell me about that?
Mitch: I think the Smothers Brothers covered it. And that would be something that would be typical of Shel. Shel started writing for Playboy magazine in 1956, and he was a lifelong contributor, and he was a lifelong friend to Hugh Hefner, very, very close, and very respected by everybody over there. And I'm only saying that to say there's another song that was very adult in nature, but also very funny.
Songfacts: Yeah, that song to me, in some ways I hate to lump some of these songs into the novelty category, because when you have the line about how you shouldn't go looking for a mermaid if you don't know how to swim – that's some good stuff right there.
Mitch: Oh yeah. And again, we use the word "novelty" because we just don't have anything better to describe it. These songs are funny, and they were clever, but that doesn't mean that they weren't musical, and that there wasn't insight.
Songfacts: When he did "Cover Of The Rolling Stone," is there anything you can tell us about that one?
Mitch: Well, it succeeded in the fact that they actually put Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show on the cover of the magazine. As well as Creem and some others. But it was very, very popular, it captured the imagination of the American public, it was very funny, it was cute.
Songfacts: Did he have a particular band in mind when he wrote it?
Mitch: I think that he was already hanging with Dr. Hook when he did it, but if he didn't, he had been around musicians, and he understood what people wanted. And he understood how every musician's dream was to be a star. To be a big star. To be on the cover of a big magazine, and what magazine epitomized music?
And I mean, Shel lampooned the whole rock and roll lifestyle – groupies and Indian gurus – at the time. The Beatles and everybody, Donovan, and all those people were wearing Indian garb and going to see Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and coming back supposedly enlightened – or not. And everybody was still hustling - it was all hustle. I'm not saying that anyone was insincere, I'm just saying that you can see people for what they are. And he did that, and made it funny, too.
Songfacts: Was it his idea to do the guitar solo in that?
Mitch: Well, I would have to give some credit, without knowing everything, that Ronnie Haffkine was the producer, and that Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show became such prolific interpreters of Shel's material for some reasons which would completely include their sense of humor. They were just a bar band from New Jersey, as much as Columbia Records tried to make them some crazy Cajun band that came out of the swamps. I mean, Ray Sawyer was from the South, maybe one or two of the other guys. But they were just a bar band, and were blessed with two great singers: both Ray and Dennis had fantastic voices. Dennis' was the one that was a little raspier and rougher, and similar to Shel's in grit, and Ray was a little bit more lascivious and a little bit more playful, and the chemistry between the two of them – although it did not last forever – was a perfect foil for Shel to use.
And if it was a sweet love song, you know, Dennis might just do something very straightforward. Like "I Can't Touch The Sun For You" off the first record. And not all their songs were novelty, and not all their songs were humorous, and not all their performances were gimmicky. But they also were not afraid to go over to Europe and perform on stage and get naked. I mean, they were just a bunch of maniacs.
Songfacts: I pulled up on iTunes just to see what the #1 downloaded Shel Silverstein composition would be: "I Got Stoned, And I Missed It."
Mitch: Right. That was also covered by Dr. Hook, but probably made just as much of a dent on Shel's record, Freakin' At The Freaker's Ball. And, you know, there's a moral to that story, but also it's shown with a certain degree of insight into the counterculture. I mean, these were the people Shel was around: musicians, and artists, and intellectuals, and partygoers, and a fast crowd. And I'm sure he was exposed to plenty of people that did get stoned, and missed it.
I'm not saying Shel was above it, I'm not saying that that was his pursuit, either. But certainly, he had enough exposure to it to be able to write a song like that. And there were other commentaries on pot. I mean, "The Great Smoke Off," which I believe he recorded, and also was in Playboy magazine. So he had the ability to lampoon things that he was familiar with, and find humor and creativity in the kind of cultural fads as they were occurring, and the way that life was being led in the 1970s.
Songfacts: And the last thing I want to ask you, Mitch, is if you have any insight on how he came up with the names, like Sylvia, and where these different things may come from, and if any of them were based on real people.
Mitch: "Sylvia's Mother" was based on a real person. I cannot remember if her name was Sylvia or not. It probably was. But I think it was like many songwriters, it just had to have the right number of syllables, and also it had to flow. It just had to fit. And you could work up a song with one name, and then find something else that fit a little bit better. But yeah, some songs were based on real people. That's for sure.
Songfacts: Can you tell me who Sylvia's mother was?
Mitch: I don't know her name. I mean, she was just a girl that he was interested in, and the mom didn't like him. You know, sometimes it's tough… we're talking about a time before cellphones, and you could conceivably be at a payphone and only have so many quarters in your pocket, and so many minutes to get through, and if somebody's mom answered the phone, you're not getting through unless she loves you. I mean, it seemed quite believable. I can remember as a young man hearing that song on the radio and saying, "That sounds like something Shel would write." And then learning that it indeed was.
Songfacts: Are there any other songs that you'd like to mention?
Mitch: I remembered another song that I think Loretta Lynn covered called "Four Poster Bed." And some of these songs that he lampooned the folk boom, there's a song called "Bury Me In My Shades," and one called "The Civil War Song." But there were hundreds of songs. Hundreds and hundreds of them that he wrote. And they fit in every different category that you can think of, and occasionally they're still covered. He continues to be an inspiration to many people. There was a song called "Don't Give A Dose To The One You Love Most," which was originally written for a commercial about awareness of venereal disease. And it was funny, but it had a message, and it worked. So there you go.
We spoke with Mitch on July 24, 2007. His other books include The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling. There's also a collection of previously unpublished Silverstein poems and drawings called book of previously unpublished poems and drawings released in 2011 called Every Thing On It.