Shel Silverstein, Songwriter

shel 1

Shel Silverstein may be best known, especially to parents, as the author of well-loved children’s books such as Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Giving Tree, and A Light in the Attic.

But though Uncle Shelby’s books have sold over 20 million copies, it’s often overlooked that he also enjoyed careers as a screenwriter, Playboy cartoonist, and singer-songwriter.

And while some of his songwriting output certainly deserves to be overlooked by anyone with even a hint of political correctness about them, a few of his songs are rightly embraced as classics.

Let’s take a rummage through the mixed bag:

“The Unicorn” by the Irish Rovers (#7 in 1968)


Many would be surprised to learn that their favorite St. Patty’s Day anthem didn’t originate from the Emerald Isle itself, but was in fact written by a Jewish guy from Chicago.

It was a career-making song for the Irish Rovers, and they parlayed its success into a TV show and long run as a recording and touring act. And it’s a tune that generations of kids have sung along to, right up to the present. “The Unicorn” may in fact be Shel Silverstein’s most enduring work.

“A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash (#2 in 1969)

Country music icon Johnny Cash is regarded as one of the most successful and influential artists of the 20th century and has sold over 90 million records worldwide. But his highest-charting hit was this novelty record written by ole Uncle Shelby.

“Father of a Boy Named Sue”

Pop song sequels are almost always a bad idea but “Father of a Boy Named Sue” might have been the worst ever. Here’s Shel’s own take on his attempt to tell the same story from the other point of view. Yes, Uncle Shelby’s implication is that he sleeps with his son. But only “on the nights that he can’t score”.

I guess Cash wasn’t interested in recording this one for some crazy reason.

“Sylvia’s Mother” by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (#5 in 1972)

Quite a clever story song in that the story is pushed along solely by use of a telephone conversation, with the interruptions by the operator to ask for more coin only upping the dramatic ante.

While I can understand this song being categorized by some with 70’s melodrama such as “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” and “Seasons in the Sun”, it’s actually an affecting song sensitively rendered and deserves recognition as a 70’s pop classic.

“The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone'” by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (#6 in 1973)


A cheeky look at early 70’s rock and roll excess and another smash hit for Dr. Hook–their last prior to reinventing themselves as the sappy balladeers of “A Little Bit More” and “Sharing the Night Together”.

According to members of the group, they really did buy five copies for their mothers.

What is impressive is the breadth the band showed in mustering what was called for here–an arrangement that feels loose enough to be a session outtake or rehearsal–just as they’d found the sensitive soul of “Sylvia’s Mother”.

“Put Another Log on the Fire” by Tompall Glaser

Country singer Tompall Glaser’s highest-charting country hit (#21 in 1975) was another bit of snark which happened to fit the “outlaw country” niche inhabited by David Allan Coe and Johnny Paycheck. Incidentally, in 2016 “Johnny Paycheck” sounds more like a rapper than a country singer.

“I Got Stoned and I Missed It” by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show

Ok so Uncle Shelby really liked weed too. And his more adult material showed sensitivities that might have shocked some whose exposure was limited to “The Unicorn” and The Giving Tree.

“Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out”

Shel himself recorded some of the poems from his children’s books. And though he never cracked the top 100 as a performer of his own work, this one actually was released on a 45.


See also:

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mvcoogan
    Mar 31, 2016 @ 14:22:31

    I always, from the first, hated that dumb Unicorn song, and the dumb fake leprachun srereotype voice singing it. (don’t tell me, I know they are from Ireland, but they still stereotyped it badly.) just a really dumb song. Well in my opinion anyway.
    Never knew that Shell Silverstein wrote all the stuff though. Thanks for sharing that. I did think the Boy Named Sue was funny. Very weird sequel though. Thanks for sharing that and ruining it.
    I always liked his poetry, did not know that he wrote songs. TheDr. Hook numbers seem to fit perfectly. Thanks Ed.


  2. mvcoogan
    Mar 31, 2016 @ 15:15:34

    Sorry. I did not realize the second post was going on your website. I thought it was an email to you. Doesn’t matter I guess. I can’t find any spot to edit it.
    The other thing is, I guess, from the beginning I knew that was not an Irish song. It’s one of those fake Irish things like so much of St. Patrick’s Day. I guess that’s part of the reason for my rant anyway. Seems to have touched a nerve. It is most definitely NOT an Irish folk song.
    On the third hand, you are right about Sylvia’s Mother. It’s kind of like Mrs. Brown you’ve got a Lovely Daughter, crossed with Jim Croce’s Operator. But more pathos and genuine feeling than either one of them.


  3. Ed Cyphers
    Mar 31, 2016 @ 17:09:11

    I deleted your second post–I assume that’s what you intended. To address some of your points/questions:

    Shel Silverstein died in 1999 at age 68.

    “The Unicorn” is a song I grew up with in the house since my dad was an Irish Rovers fan. Although I’m a little tired of that song, as kids’ songs go (which is what it is) I’ve always preferred it to Puff the Magic Dragon for example.
    Anyway the band have literally dozens of other tunes that I really love. As a point of trivia, one was co-written by Paul McCartney and a British hit for Paul’s brother.

    Will Millar’s leprechaun-like voice certainly isn’t a put-on. He’s the Jon Anderson of Irish folk:

    I’ve seen the band live and can say Millar was one of the funniest, most engaging, entertaining “front men” I’ve seen. So they tick off a few Irish stereotypes. There aren’t many performers of Irish music who don’t. And it’s meant in fun, which is what their music and live shows certainly are.

    The band were born in Ireland and sing traditional Irish songs, sprinkled with covers of songs by writers like Silverstein, John Denver, Tom Paxton and the like. That’s authentic enough for me.

    The Pogues, for example, may get much more critical acclaim. The Chieftains and the Dubliners too. But I find the Chieftains kind of boring. And the Pogues’ punk/Irish hybrid sound is an innovation, NOT an authentic presentation of Irish music. The Rovers, I suppose, are like the Dubliners but a lot more fun. Some of their hits were novelty songs that absolutely pandered to the common denominator.

    But some albums, like On the Shores of Americay for example, are about as authentic as you could want them to be–at least they suffice for me when I’m in the mood for Irish folk.

    Of course these things are subjective, but I still think of their version of Black Velvet Band as definitive:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: