Where Shel Silverstein Begins
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
As my favorite rock band, Spinal Tap, famously said, “There’s a thin line between being clever and being stupid.” As the Tap themselves also established, there’s an equally thin line in pop culture between satire and that which is being satirized. There are those of us, for example, who feel that Mel Brooks’s “Spaceballs” is one of cinema’s great science fiction movies. Never mind that it’s a comedy — it’s a much more enjoyable extension of the “Star Wars” franchise than any of the three recent films in that series.
The remarkable career of Shel Silverstein (1930-99) fits snugly into this gray area, where the satirical and the serious overlap. As a child, one of my favorite reads was “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book,” but it wasn’t until I got older that I realized it wasn’t simply an alphabet book for children, but a parody of that very sort of book. In this one, little boys and girls learned that if they brushed their teeth, murderers would sneak into their rooms after dark and see their pearly whites gleaming in the dark. He also shattered the myth of the magical land of Oz, but offered a consolation prize: “Maybe some day you can go to Detroit.”
In 1959, Silverstein, who had crafted his first cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes as a G.I. in Korea and Japan, recorded his debut album, “Hairy Jazz,” which has just been reissued for the first time on CD, along with two other prizes from the Uncle Shelby discography, “Inside Folk Songs” and “Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs” (Water Records).
At the time, Silverstein was known neither as a children’s book author nor as a songwriter. So it’s kind of a mystery why producer Jac Holzman thought to make a Dixieland jazz album with this aspiring poet from Chicago. Mr. Holzman’s label, Elektra Records, was primarily oriented toward folk music, but had produced a few notable modern jazz albums with Teddy Charles, Herbie Mann, and Art Blakey.
The original liner notes to “Hairy Jazz” were provided by the radio host and raconteur Jean Shepherd. However, in a brief reminiscence added for the new reissue, Mr. Holzman relates that Silverstein more or less just talked him into the project: He wanted to do an album of old-time jazz and blues numbers, even though, as far as I can tell, Silverstein wasn’t actively performing these songs in public. Together, they got the idea to add a full Dixieland band, and chose most of the musicians who had played with Davern’s Salty Dogs, including Frank Ludlow (cornet), Steve Knight (trombone and tuba), Steve Larner (banjo), Arnie Hyman (bass), and Bob Thompson (drums). The Red Onions, as they were billed on the album cover, also included the pianist Bob Greene, who had already recorded with Sidney Bechet (a member of the original Red Onion Jazz Band of the 1920s) and later specialized in Jelly Roll Morton numbers.
“Hairy Jazz” features Silverstein shouting and belting old-time tunes of the Jazz Age and earlier, such as the Bert Williams specialty “Somebody Else, Not Me,” and two rather poignant tales of love and longing associated with the great Bessie Smith, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and “Kitchen Man.” Mr. Holzman has described the session as being more like a party than a job, the air permeated by pickles, beer, and Limburger cheese. The selection of tunes shows that Silverstein, like Robert Crumb, another iconoclastic illustrator and occasional musician of the era, was a keen buff of 1920s and ’30s “race music”: The final track of the album is “Ragged but Right,” which Silverstein probably learned from a 1937 recording by “Banjo” Ikey Robinson, and was also recorded in a country treatment by Johnny Cash, who would later play a major role in Silverstein’s career.
Nearly every track on the album begins with Silverstein announcing take numbers, like a cross between a producer and a matrix-obsessed record collector. Only two tunes, “Broken Down Mama” and “Pass Me By Like You Never Knowed Me,” are credited to Silverstein himself, but two others, “Go Back Where You Got It Last Night” and “Good Whiskey,” are so freely adapted from traditional sources that they might as well be originals. On every tune, Silverstein brings his hoarse, expressive tenor and the overwhelming force of his personality to bear on the material, marking the lyrics and creating the aural equivalent of one of his idiosyncratic cartoons. On “Who Walks In,” an English song from 1934 (and the British equivalent of the blues), Silverstein lustily declaims like a combination of Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, and Peter Boyle in “Young Frankenstein.” He starts “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” (a 1909 song that had been a hit for Perry Como as late as 1947) like a weeping parody of lachrymose crooners, ending the first chorus with “I wonder if she ever tells that dirty bastard all about me,” before ragging it up in the second.
The mood changes considerably on his second album, “Inside Folk Songs” (1962), which was at once part and parody of the burgeoning folk movement, though it was still early for a troubadour to do an entire album of original material. “Inside Folk Songs” is every bit as topical as anything by Tom Lehrer, with affectionate nods to Elizabeth Taylor’s serial monogamy (“Liz”) and Harry Belafonte’s shirtless calypso (“Bananas”). “The Unicorn” soon became a hit for the Irish Rovers, and “(I’m Being Eaten by a) Boa Constrictor” is a children’s song that nearly everyone born after 1960 will — or should — remember. But this album wasn’t really for children. It was beatnik self-help, as anyone who took a lesson from “It Does Not Pay To Be Hip” and “Bury Me In My Shades” can tell you.
The mood on the 1960s “Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs” is much more Nashville than Greenwich Village. The cover photo even shows the singer-songwriter from underneath in an angle similar to the one on the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline.” The title track, as performed by Johnny Cash (most famously on his “Live at San Quentin” album), became an all-time country classic. Not content to merely collect royalties, Silverstein was determined to challenge his own work, and a few years later followed with a pansexual parody of his biggest hit, “The Father of a Boy Named Sue.” In the original especially, it’s difficult to tell if Silverstein was writing a parody of a country song or the real thing, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Whatever his intention, he came up with a moving story about paternity and masculine identity. Uncle Shelby had crossed the thin line yet again. Whatever else he was, he was ragged but right.