By Ed Breen
There’s supposed to be some news or information in these little homilies and I’m trying my best to think of a reason why I am telling you about Shel Silverstein today. But I can’t.
Not his birthday. That was September 30 of 1930 on Chicago’s northwest side. Not his death. That came in May of ‘99 in Key West, Fla. No new books, no movie or anything like that.
I’m telling you about him, really, because I had the radio on over the weekend and somebody played “Me and Jimmie Rodgers,” and that got me thinking about Sheldon Allan Silverstein and what a genius he was and how sorry I am that I never sought him out, never bought him a beer, never got inside that bald head of his to figure out what made a kid from Chicago really understand what most of America is about and how funny we really are.
Start with this: Remember a song by Johnny Cash called “A Boy Named Sue”? How do you do? and kickin’ and gougin’ in the mud the blood and the beer?. And everybody has a laugh until you figure out that the old man was doing the very best he knew how for his son by naming him Sue. Serious stuff.
And it’s one of the few Johnny Cash songs that Cash didn’t write. Shel Silverstein did. That and a couple hundred other songs and books of poems and children’s stories and cartoons for adults and some movie scripts and scores along the way. And he was a friend of little Steve Goodman who died far too young but not before he wrote “Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans” and the great anthem “Go, Cubs, Go,” as in “hey, Chicago, whaddya say . . .” It now gets played at the end of every game at Wrigley Field.
But come back to “Me and Jimmie Rodgers,” which is one of those story songs that don’t get written much anymore. “El Paso” by Marty Robbins and maybe “Class of ’57 by two of the Statler Brothers, Don and Harold Reid.
“Me and Jimmie Rodgers used to ride them
Rollin’ boxcars in the summer time
Jimmie he’d play his guitar I’d lay back
And watch the stars and sip my wine.
Me and Audie Murphy used to crawl out on our bellies
Through the German lines
Audie I won’t leave you here I’ll pull you through
‘Cause buddy, you’re a pal of mine.
And so on through another half-dozen verses.
Another one called “Blind Willie Harper” started like this : On a stone cold night in Memphis Willie Harper came to town . . . With a blue tick hound at his heels and a dime in his shoe . . . Oh, he could make that guitar sing . . . You should have heard that pavement ring . . . When Blind Willie Harper played the blues.
He wrote a play along with our own Hoosier author Jean Sheppard, who, of course, gave the world Ralphie and “A Christmas Story .” And he had songs on the soundtrack for “Thelma and Louise,” and he wrote “One’s On the Way” for Loretta Lynn. Remember Bobby Baer’s “Tequila Sheila”? That’s his too.
But nobody ever thought of Shel Silverstein as a country music writer or a popular music writer or a poet or a movie script writer . . . or any of a lot of other things. But he was.
There’s a marvelous little ditty about a hippo sandwich: A hippo sandwich is easy to make . . . All you do is simply take . . . One slice of bread, . . . One slice of cake, . . .Some mayonnaise . . . .One onion ring, . . . .One hippopotamus . . . .One piece of string, . . . A dash of pepper . . . .That ought to do it. . . . And now comes the problem . . . .Biting into it!
And he’d skip from that to composing most of the music and lyrics for the first several albums for “Dr. Hook and Medicine Show” back in those days.
Fairly late in life he was asked to talk about his own work, and he did, but reluctantly. Said he of himself: “So I’ll keep on communicating, but only my way. Lots of things I won’t do. I won’t go on television because who am I talking to? Johnny Carson? The camera? Twenty million people I can’t see? Uh-uh. And I won’t give any more interviews.”
And he didn’t. We’ll get back to the serious stuff next week.