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Murder and Blueberry Pies: Shel Silverstein as Songwriter

August 19, 2013

Gather ‘round fellows I’ll tell you some tales about murder and blueberry pies
And heroes and hells and bottomless wells and lullabies, legends and lies
And gather round ladies come sit at my feet I’ll sing about warm sunny skies
There’s mermaids and beans and lovin’ machines in my lullabies, legends and lies
I’ll sing you a song then I’ll shuffle along with my lullabies, legends and lies

shel-silversteinThere is a philosophy to Shel Silverstein. The uninhibited way in which he lived his life, as well as his insatiable thirst for it, permeates the tone of his work. There is an adultness to his acclaimed books of children’s poems and stories, which elevates them to the universally recognized status they enjoy to this day. Rather than pandering down to children, he spoke to them on their level, unashamedly employing occasional crude humor to bolster morals and learning lessons. As a weird and bearded, dope-smoking, bohemian songwriter of adult country music, he resorted to colorful childlike humor to tell tales of loss, substance abuse, neglect, and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. In Shel Silverstein’s world nothing is conventional and everything is possible.

This philosophy clearly resonates with the world. In his rich career, Shel Silverstein released 21 books of cartoons, stories, and poems, 12 solo albums of original songs, including multiple movie soundtracks, several plays, a screenplay, countless award-winning and hit singles and album cuts by other artists, and was the subject of a tribute album released in 2010, Twistable Turnable Man.

The famed children’s cartoonist first gained notoriety not for his children’s books but for his work in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. He contributed to the men’s lifestyle magazine from the mid-1950’s until the mid-1970’s as a cartoonist and travel correspondent, often interjecting himself into his cartoons and dispatches in a manner that foreshadowed the New Journalism movement that would be defined by such writers as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.

In 1964, Silverstein published his first children’s book. The Giving Tree is a poignant parable about the ambiguous relationship between a boy and a tree. The menacing black and white photograph of Silverstein’s bald and bearded giant head on the back cover only accentuates the ambiguity in the tone of the work.

It would be a decade before he would write his masterpiece, 1974’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The title invokes the excitement and mystery found past the fringes of societal norms and conventional thinking. Silverstein was a master at presenting children with the perception to think outside of the box, to inspire all the goodness and innovation and creativity that lie somewhere off the beaten path.

If you are a dreamer, come in.

If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…

If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.

Come in! Come in!

Lies and lying are a prevalent theme throughout his work. In the preamble to Where the Sidewalk Ends, he essentially equates lying with dreaming. In a way, dreams are lies. Storytelling is certainly a form of lying and lying is, by definition, a form of creativity.

1981’s A Light in the Attic would serve as a companion piece to Where the Sidewalk Ends with its urge for intellectual pursuit and curiosity – the “light in the attic” every child has, just waiting to be turned on.

There’s a light on in the attic.
Though the house is dark and shuttered,
I can see a flickerin’ flutter,
And I know what it’s about.
There’s a light on in the attic.
I can see it from the outside.
And I know you’re on the inside… lookin’ out.

That simple but crucial philosophy, which has touched the lives of over 20 million children in 30 different languages, just might make Shel Silverstein the most influential writer of the latter half of the 20th Century.

Silverstein’s career as a songwriter, while lesser known than his children’s books, is every bit as rich and possibly more prolific. He released his first full album of all original material in 1962. Inside Folk Music is both a tribute to and send-up of the genre. The acoustic, folky album contains rare gems as well as some of Silverstein’s better-known compositions, such as “The Unicorn,” which would be a hit for The Irish Rovers, as well as songs later popularized by Johnny Cash.

“Wreck of the Old ’49” is a 28 second long parody of the Wreck of the Old 97, a country ballad about a real-life train disaster first popularized by Vernon Dalhart in the 1920’s and later by Johnny Cash in the 1950’s. The four-line lyric reads like one of his children’s poems.

Well, I’ll sing you a song ’bout the old Forty Nine,
The fastest engine on the Santa Fe line.
On the fourteenth of April, she made a desperate dash,
And she got there on time and she did not crash!

In “Have Another Espresso,” Silverstein explores the Zen properties of espresso and the beatnik ethos, complete with upright walking bass. “And whenever life has got you way uptight, why baby just sit back and groove until everything’s right.”

His most fascinating solo record is the 1965 live album, I’m So Good I Don’t Have to Brag. The album was recorded live for Chess Records at Mother Blues in Silverstein’s native Chicago, and features blues harmonica legend Little Walter on four numbers. Silverstein’s performance is brilliant and compelling, demonstrating his mastery at capturing an audience.

Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball from 1972 became Silverstein’s best-known solo effort and features satirical songs about the counter culture, backed up by hippie-country rockers Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Songs about copious drug use (the self-explanatory “I Got Stoned and I Missed It”), venereal disease, (“Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love Most”) and women’s liberation (“Liberated Lady 1999”) are a far cry from his Children’s stories, or even his comparatively innocuous Playboy cartoons. (Silverstein recorded several off-color demos in 1970, around the time of the Freakin’ sessions, with titles such as “I Love My Right Hand,” and ‘Fuck ‘Em” which have appeared in bootleg form but have never been officially released.)

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Each of Silverstein’s solo albums is compelling on some level, and each has its own unique personality and feel, all of them quintessentially Shel Silverstein. His raspy, shrieking, high and whiny singing voice compliments the surreal worlds of his best compositions, but is certainly an acquired taste. His albums remain coveted jewels for the devoted few and curiosities for the rest. Silverstein’s songs would realize their full potential in the hands of other artists who would record a countless number of his compositions, resulting in everything from obscure album tracks to smash hit singles.

Silverstein wrote numerous songs for Dr. Hook, who he met while working on songs for the Dustin Hoffman film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, including their entire second album, Sloppy Seconds, which includes Silverstein-penned favorites “Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball,” “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” and their signature song, “The Cover of Rolling Stone,” a satirical lament from a time when the magazine, and its cover status, had real meaning.

Silverstein would fully hit his songwriting stride in Nashville, through artists associated with the burgeoning “outlaw” movement – artists with an independent and uninhibited approach to their music – whose ethos meshed perfectly with the cartoonist’s unorthodox view of life and people. The “outlaw” moniker has its origins in the highly influential 1974 Wanted! The Outlaws album, which was a compilation of songs featuring a new sound from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, as well as Jennings’ wife Jessi Colter and what would be the biggest solo hit for Tompall Glaser (who passed away last week), “Put Another Log on the Fire.”

On first listen the chauvinistic “Put Another Log on the Fire” seems like a mildly amusing, simplistic song about a neglectful, mistreating husband. But Silverstein turns the paradigm on its head. The singer in “Put Another Log on the Fire” is a hapless fool; so blinded by his own selfishness he can’t believe his wife would actually leave him, let alone understand why. It is easy to get lost in the details of the unfolding laundry list of ridiculous chores he requires of her and miss the main point of the song: she leaves.

Loretta Lynn grew up barefoot and dirt poor in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky and was married at 15. She became a superstar with her simple, well-crafted autobiographical songs. A major theme in her work was the image of a strong, independent woman who tolerated a degree of selfishness from her man but stopped short at putting up with serious transgressions. By the time she took Silverstein’s “One’s on the Way,” a comical tale of a bored and neglected Topeka housewife, to number 1, she had already scored massive success with self-penned songs such as “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man,” “Fist City,” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (with Lovin’ on Your Mind),” and “Your Squaw is on the Warpath.” “One’s on the Way” would foreshadow, both lyrically and thematically, the unlikeliest of county hits that would follow for Lynn a few years later, “The Pill.”

The protagonist in “One’s on the Way” is not a strong, independent woman. She spends her days watching the kids and losing herself in glamour magazines while her ne’er-do-well husband is out drinking with Army buddies. Although she gets taken for granted in the song, there is a sense that the woman has had enough. She is a victim of circumstance more than mentality. While the song is funny, there is a certain pathos that simmers under the surface, and Silverstein’s words along with Lynn’s perfect performance create a genuine, relatable character. The song is not patronizing. In fact, Silverstein writes from the female perspective so well one would assume it was an original Loretta Lynn composition.

Taking this theme full circle, Silverstein teamed up with Kris Kristofferson to pen the title track to Waylon Jennings’ 1971 album “The Taker/Tulsa.” “The Taker” is more serious in tone than either “Put Another Log on the Fire” or “One’s on the Way,” partly due to the brooding weight Jennings brings to his performance. “The Taker” takes all the humor out of cheating songs, painting a stark picture of a philandering playboy whose callous conquests have serious repercussions for those left in its wake.

Bobby Bare scored immense success in the 1960’s with memorable hits such as “Detroit City,” “500 Miles Away from Home,” and “Streets of Baltimore” before reinventing himself in the 1970’s as a grounded figure in the alternative “outlaw” scene. Bare recorded several Silverstein-penned songs during this era, sometimes recording entire albums of his material with an in-studio audience creating a conversational, live feel to the records. His biggest successes of this era were Silverstein-penned songs like “The Winner,” “Tequila Shelia,” “Numbers” and Bare’s only number one record, a novelty song about a voodoo witch in the Louisiana swampland named Marie Laveau who does not take rejection well.

Silverstein always had a gift for the tender as well as the provocative. His children’s books are peppered with such material from The Giving Tree to the title poem from Where the Sidewalk Ends, to “The Folks Inside” from Falling Up. Bare’s recording of “Daddy What If” featuring his then five-year-old son Bobby Bare Jr., became a crossover pop hit, number 2 country hit, and was nominated for a Grammy. In “Daddy What If,” Silverstein proves that love literally makes the world go ‘round.

Bobby Bare was perhaps the most prolific interpreter of Silverstein songs, but Silverstein’s greatest commercial successes came arguably at the hand of country music’s larger than life prophet, Johnny Cash.  The morbidly humorous “25 Minutes to Go” first appeared on Silverstein’s 1962 album Inside Folk Songs. It was initially covered by Cash on his 1965 album Sings the Ballads of the True West, and later immortalized on 1968’s At Folsom Prison. With each line the singer counts down one more minute closer to his impending execution.

With my feet on the trap and my head in the noose

Five more minutes to go

Won’t somebody come and cut me loose

Four more minutes to go

I can see the mountains, I can see the sky

With three more minutes to go

And it’s too darn pretty for a man to wanna die

Two more minutes to go

I can see the buzzards, I can hear the crows

One more minute to go

And now I’m swingin’ and here I go-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!

Cash recorded an album of comedy songs in 1966 entitled Everybody Loves a Nut, which contained “Boa Constrictor,” a song that also appeared on Inside Folk Songs and would be eventually included in poem form in Where the Sidewalk Ends. The song is similar in design to “25 Minutes to Go,” each of them keeping score on an immanent, unnatural demise. Instead of counting down minutes, the narrator in “Boa Constrictor” counts up body parts.

Silverstein’s pièce de résistance as a country music songwriter almost never happened. Nashville in the late 1960’s was akin to Paris in the 20’s. A seemingly incomprehensible number of brilliant writers and musicians concentrated within a few square miles would forever shape the landscape of commercial songwriting. Johnny Cash was well over a decade into his enormous career by this time, cast as the patriarchal Gertrude Stein of this bohemian renaissance. Cash and wife June Carter would often host informal “guitar pulls” in their living room where on any given night the best and brightest songwriters in the world would unveil their new creations. It was a process that fed into itself – you could never be caught repeating yourself and so you always had to have a new song to showcase, always looking to top not just your previous effort, but the other writers in the room as well.

John and June held court one such evening in 1969, the night before they were scheduled to fly to California and record what would become the immortal At San Quentin album. On this particular night the stakes were especially high. An up-and-coming Kris Kristofferson sang his latest composition, “Me and Bobby McGee,” a self-exiled Bob Dylan unveiled his sparse, quiet “Lay Lady Lay,” Joni Mitchell sang her latest, “Both Sides Now.” When the guitar was passed to Shel Silverstein, he presented an odd little existential story-song about a curiously named man and his quest for fulfillment.

Cash loved the song, but had his mind on the next day’s big gig in the Big House. At June’s insistence, he took along Silverstein’s handwritten lyric sheet on the off chance he might want to perform it for the audience of convicts in California. His infamous prison shows were always a loosely structured affair. Cash possessed the uncanny ability to reach these prisoners on a level that was neither gratuitous nor patronizing. He didn’t celebrate their behavior, nor did he judge.

I was thinkin’ about you guys yesterday. I’ve been here three times before and I think I understand a little bit how you feel about some things, it’s none of my business how you feel about some other things, and I don’t give a damn how you feel about some other things.

It was from this lyric sheet that Cash read as he performed “A Boy Named Sue” for the first time in front of the audience of inmates at San Quentin Prison on February 24, 1969.  The impromptu nature of Cash’s performance is what makes this record so special (and explains why later attempts to recreate this magic in concert and television appearances usually fall flat). Cash is noticeably amused by the lyric himself, practically discovering the gems in Silverstein’s wordplay, line by line, along with the crowd. The performance is accentuated by the tasty guitar licks of the brilliant Carl Perkins.

Silverstein wrote a darkly comic ditty, its surrealism shadowing any real danger. Cash turned it into an anthem for the lost and fatherless born into a stacked deck, a mean world in which they never had a chance. A study of the faces and reactions in the audience demonstrates the deepest of connection between artist and audience on a level that remains unparalleled.

One of Silverstein’s final projects was a double album from a novelty super group, consisting of veteran country music icons Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed, billed as the Old Dogs. The 1998 release of Old Dogs was recorded live in studio, harkening back to the classic Bobby Bare concept records, and consists entirely of material written by Shel Silverstein. The songs are almost exclusively comic tales about growing old, with songs like “I Don’t Do it No More,” “She’d Rather Be Homeless (than here at home with me)” and “Cut the Mustard,” with its refrain, “I ain’t too old to cut the mustard, I’m just too tired to spread it around.” The album was marketed through television infomercials and appearances on the now defunct Nashville Network, back when less restrictive programming allowed for exposure to the occasional out-of-the-box material.

The highlight of the set isn’t necessarily a comedy song, nor is it new. “Rough on the Living” originally appeared on Shel Silverstein’s 1980 solo album, The Great Conch Train Robbery, and was first covered by Bobby Bare on his in-studio “live” album, Down and Dirty. Bare does not take the lead on this version, instead passing the microphone to the mighty Waylon Jennings – just a few years away from his own death – who delivers a tour de force performance of an all too familiar subject.

The song, presumably inspired by the death of pioneering bluegrass founding father Lester Flatt, is a cutting indictment of the frivolity found in the Nashville music industry, and the public at large. It mocks the sad hypocrisy in the way great artists are left terribly alone and forgotten in later years, often living in dire financial straits, entirely ignored by the industry and public alike, only to be celebrated at death.

The theme is nothing new. America’s first great songwriter, Stephen Foster, died in a Bowery flophouse with 38 cents in his pocket. And it certainly isn’t unique to Nashville. The song is essentially the country song version of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. What makes “Rough on the Living” so compelling is the combination of Silverstein’s razor-sharp, specific observations in the lyric coupled with Jennings’ universal knowing in the delivery. The spoken opening, “here’s a song about a friend of ours” is not a reference to any one in particular; the phenomenon occurs repeatedly, consistently, and to this day.

Inside you, boy,
There’s an old man sleepin’,
Dreamin’, waitin’ for his chance.
Inside you, girl,
There’s an old lady dozin’,
Wantin’ to show you a slower dance.

So keep on playin’,
Keep on runnin’,
Keep on jumpin’, ’til the day
That those old folks
Down inside you
Wake up … and come out to play.

~ The Folks Inside, from Falling Up

Despite authoring the Old Dogs songs, with their harmless fun about aging, Shel Silverstein was far too boisterous and unbounded for growing old gracefully. He suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Key West in 1999, at the relatively young age of 68.

I do believe that a person who is truly observant in one of the arts will be truly observant and sensitive in the others as well, but it’s his ability to express these things that would limit him. I believe that a man who is a sensitive painter is sensitive to life, and therefore would be sensitive as a writer or as a storyteller, but having the ability to write is something more than merely seeing. Having the ability to paint is something more than merely seeing the colors, seeking the form. It’s in execution, in skill.

Shel Silverstein possessed not merely imagination and creativity – this sensitivity to life – but had the craft and skill for flawless, seemingly endless execution. It seems as if Shel Silverstein never rested his pen. Artists and craftsmen only improve by doing and Shel Silverstein never stopped creating works of wonder, sharing his – and shaping our – view of the world.

Upside-down trees swingin’ free,

Busses float and buildings dangle:

Now and then it’s nice to see

The world – from a different angle.

~ New World, from Falling Up

Shel Silverstein did not simply show us the world from a different angle; he gave us the inspiration to see it for ourselves. That is more than mere storytelling – it is dreaming come to life.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Larry Bush permalink
    August 21, 2013 6:39 am

    I have been familiar with Silverstein’s poetry books for decades, I’ve seen his cartoons in Playboy anthologies, and have been aware of his song-writing, but this is the first time I have read the interplay between the three. Although, I would have liked to see more discussion of the cartoons, this is interesting and merits more research.

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