Silverstein, Shel

views updated May 17 2018

Shel Silverstein

Singer, songwriter

Best known as the author of several popular children's books, Shel Silverstein was a comedic renaissance man: a poet who crossed Ogden Nash's playfulness with Mad Magazine irreverence; a cartoonist who jacked up Dr. Seuss style fantasies with Jules Feiffer's neurotic social relevance; and a folk singer who wrote with the taboo-inducing bite of comic Lenny Bruce. Contradictory and difficult, he was a renowned children's author who was reportedly impatient with children, as well as a shy, private man whose work and image portrayed him as a bearded, shaved head attention-seeking extrovert. As a performer, the raspy, grating voice that so brilliantly underscored the nature of his spoken word pieces made him sound like an undisciplined madman when he sang. However, it was as a songwriter where he arguably made his biggest mark on pop culture. The songs he wrote for Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show made the band famous, the tunes he crafted for Bobby Bare provided the country singer a fresh commercial run, and Johnny Cash's late 1960s comeback was fueled by the mass popularity of Silverstein's tune "A Boy Named Sue."

Drew Cartoons for Playboy

Born in the lower middle class neighborhood of Palmer Square in Chicago, Illinois, Silverstein grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts with his mother and expressed a special affection for the work of Ernest Tubb. According to a 1975 interview he gave Publisher's Weekly, his artistic leanings cropped up at an early age. "When I was a kid—twelve, fourteen—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls. But, I couldn't play ball, I couldn't dance," he recalled. "So I started to draw and write." After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Silverstein studied art briefly at the University of Illinois before being "thrown out," and landing at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where he "really learnt how to draw."

The drawing and writing habit followed him into his 1954-56 army stint, where he contributed cartoons to the Pacific edition of the soldier's newspaper Star & Stripes. A nonconformist to the end, many of his Take Ten cartoons were censored by offended and oversensitive military brass, but popular enough to be collected for the paperback Grab Your Socks and sold to appreciative foot soldiers. Despite various hassles over content, Star & Stripes helped Silverstein develop his craft. It would take a far more worldy publication to make him famous.

Initially, post-army life was a comedown for Silverstein, who had trouble selling his cartoons to regular state-side magazines. In 1956, the artist was introduced to Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, who enjoyed a reputation as a rather perceptive and savvy cartoon editor. Silverstein, who flourished under Hefner's direction, was allowed to get as ribald and racy as he wanted. In the process, he created a unique style laced with zany non sequiturs, satirical allusions, irony, and subtle pathos. A roving reporter, Silverstein also supplied the magazine with quirky illustrations and poems about the places he visited along with comically captioned photos. Greater fame as a family oriented author would transpire in decades to come, but Silverstein continued contributing to Playboy on and off until his death.

Began Recording in 1959

Silverstein's premier collection of non-army cartoons, Now Here's My Plan: A Book of Futilities, was published in 1960. Prior to that, he had made his first jaunt into the recording studio to cut the LP Hairy Jazz. Now an ultra-rare collectable, the album was notable because it featured only two of Silverstein's compositions, instead relying on zany Dixieland style renditions of such oldies as "If I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" and a "Good Man Is Hard to Find." A poor seller, the disc led the way for the writer's further experiments in beatnik flavored folk and country music such as his hilarious 1961 release Inside Folk Songs. Never reaching mass audiences, it nonetheless provided excellent cover material for the Serendipity Singers, the Smothers Brothers, Johnny Cash—who loved the macabre hangman humor of "25 Minutes to Go"—and the Irish Rovers, who made "The Unicorn Song" a major pop hit later in the decade.

With the 1963 publication of Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back, Silverstein entered the realm of children's literature. Moderately successful at first, his children's books, poems, and cartoons would prove enduringly successful in the years to come. Part of Silverstein's appeal is that both his approach to humor and storytelling has an honest, forthright spirit seething behind every word and picture. Years later he explained part of his philosophy to the New York Times. "Happy endings, magic solutions in children's books create an alienation in the child who reads them. The child asks why don't I have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back."

For the Record …

Born Sheldon Alan Silverstein on June 29, 1948, in Chicago, IL; died on May 10, 1999, in Key West, FL; children: Matthew.

Renowned author, songwriter, cartoonist, and recording artist. As a musician, released first album, Hairy Jazz, on Elektra, 1959; created first album of funny songs, InsideFolk Songs, for Atlantic, 1962; recorded for Cadet label, 1965-1967; recorded the album A Boy NamedSue with Chet Atkins producing for RCA, 1968; recorded Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show for Columbia, 1969; recorded for various labels, 1972-1979. As a songwriter, wrote hits for Bobby Bare, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show. Composed songs for several films and TV specials including The Moving Finger (1963), Ned Kelly (1970), Who IsHarry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971), Payday (1972), Thieves (1977), and Free to Be You and Me (1974). His album A Light in the Attic nominated for Best Recordings for Children Grammy Award, 1984; shared Edgar Award nomination with David Mamet for co-writing the film Things Change, 1989; received Oscar and Golden Globe nomination for Best Music, Original Song for his contribution to the film Postcards from the Edge, 1991.

Awards: Grammy Award, Best Country Song for "A Boy Named Sue," 1969; Grammy Award, Best Recording for Children for Where the Sidewalk Ends, 1984.

Addresses: Record company—Flying Fish/Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge MA, 02140, website: Website—Shel Silverstein Official Website:

Never completely committed to being a children's author, Silverstein spent most of his writing and recording career veering between tickling kids' funny bones and creating material designed to explode the myths behind social and sexual taboos. Indeed, in the course of one year he wrote both Uncle Shelby's A Giraffe and a Half and composed the decidedly adult tunes that comprised the LP I'm So Good That I Don't Have to Brag. From the latter sprang "The Mermaid," a top ten country hit for Bobby Bare, but for the most part Silverstein's recorded satire and ribaldry found a very small audience. His lack of popularity as a singer stemmed in part from his unusual raspy vocal style. That said, he claimed no one actually advised him not to sing. "Well, nobody gives me static about my voice," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1973. "They just aren't charmed by it. I don't see anybody running out and buying my records. But I like the way I sing." Regardless, Silverstein wouldn't enjoy lucrative mainstream success in music until someone else did the singing.

Wrote for Doctor Hook and Bobby Bare

As a songwriter, Silverstein enjoyed a certain cache with modern folk-conscious artists such as Marianne Faithfull, who cut an emotionally resonant version of his "Ballad of Lucy Jordan." However, the songsmith really struck gold when country superstar Johnny Cash recorded his composition "A Boy Named Sue." The million-selling, Grammy-winning song not only gave The Man in Black a desperately needed career boost, but it opened the door for other country acts to record Silverstein's songs. In the years to come, Faron Young hit number four with "Your Time's Comin'," Jerry Lee Lewis scored a number two record with "Once More With Feeling," Loretta Lynn hit number one with "One's On The Way" and number four with "Hey Loretta," and Brenda Lee reached number four with "Wrong Ideas." But Silverstein's biggest breakthrough came when he began writing for an obscure and eccentric rock group known as Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show.

Doctor Hook and company stumbled into a big break when Silverstein had them record "The Last Morning" for his movie soundtrack Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying All Those Terrible Things About Me? "Shel and the producer of the record wanted to have the song recorded by an unknown band," recalled Doctor Hook guitarist Rik Elswit for, "and there was nobody more unknown than these five maniacs playing to the drunks in a bar across the river Union [in New Jersey]. Shel loved them, and they quickly found themselves lifted out of obscurity and hanging out with movie stars. The producer assured them there's be money in it for them later. It wasn't the last time he'd be less than truthful to them, but they did get a recording contract out of it and Shel wrote three albums worth of songs for them."

More importantly, Dennis Locarriere's penetrating vocal style brought into play all the shades of wastoid humor and hippie heartbreak that Silverstein intended but could never deliver personally. As a result, the band's 1972 rendition of "Sylvia's Mother" was a million-selling hit. Better still, their whoop-it-up take on "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" not only made them stars, it gave the band a public identity—not to mention an actual cover story in Rolling Stone. The band repaid part of their personal debt to their benefactor by backing him on the 1972 Columbia disc Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball. Easily the best produced album of Silverstein's career, the lyrical content careens between doper humor, children's poetry, masochism, and advice about venereal disease, all done in a zany, fun-loving party style. Despite good word of mouth and a vigorous promotional campaign, the album barely sold.

In country music, Silverstein's soul mate was Bobby Bare. A clever singer-songwriter in his own right, Bare's laconic, comedic timing seemed tailor made for Silverstein's work. Together they made the first country concept album, Lullabyes, Legends, and Lies, which spawned two major hits: "Daddy What If" and "Marie Laveau," the latter complete with Silverstein's own voodoo-inspired shrieks. Songs that started out as poems—"The Winner" and "The Jogger," most notably—were hilarious as done by Bare, and the remarkably prolific Silverstein eventually contributed heavily to eight of Bare's albums. "Shel is the greatest lyricist there ever was," Bare told the author. "He worked harder than anybody I ever met. He would get involved with me doing these albums and wouldn't give up. We'd be mixing and mixing and I'd have to say, 'Shel, it's over, it's done, it's finished.' 'Well what about...?' 'It's done!' 'Well, we could do...' 'No, it's over! Let's go home. All it needs is out.'"

Also a Playwright

When not doing music, Silverstein continued to churn out a mix of funny, philosophic children's books such as Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Giving Tree, and The Missing Piece, which garnered accolades and impressive sales. He stretched himself creatively by teaming with David Mamet to write a series of one-act plays billed as Oh Hell and create the Golden Globe-nominated screenplay for the 1989 film Things Change. But friends kept drawing him back into the musical arena. He composed most of the songs for folk veteran Bob Gibson's final album, and took on another country concept album with Bobby Bare featuring fellow middle-aged country-charts castoffs Jerry Reed, Mel Tillis, and Waylon Jennings (titled Old Dogs). It would be Silverstein's last major recording project. "We spent about a year in the studio working on that," recalled Bare. "We had a ton of fun. I was just devastated when he died. It just floored me because he was the last one I expected to go. He was the only one of all my friends who took care of himself. He ate right, he exercised, and everything."

At the time of his death, Silverstein seemed more content with his status as a children's author and entertainer. The financial rewards stemming from a lifetime of hard, compulsive work allowed him to keep homes in Sausalito, Greenwich Village, and Key West, and his success made him philosophical. "I am free to leave," he told the writer's biography series Something About the Author, "go wherever I please. Do whatever I want. I believe everyone should live like that. Don't be dependent on anyone else—man, woman, child, or dog. I want to go everywhere, look and listen to everything. You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life."

Selected discography

Solo albums

Hairy Jazz, Elektra, 1959.

Inside Folk Songs, Atlantic, 1962; reissued as Inside ShelbySingleton, Atlantic, 1970.

I'm So Good That I Don't Have to Brag, Cadet, 1965.

Drain My Brain, Cadet, 1967.

A Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs, RCA, 1969.

Ned Kelly: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, United Artists, 1970; reissued on Rykodisc, 1998.

Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (soundtrack), Columbia, 1971.

Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball, Columbia, 1972; reissued, 1999.

Crouchin' on the Outside, Janus, 1973.

Songs & Stories, Parachute, 1978.

The Great Conch Train Robbery, Flying Fish, 1980; reissued, 1992.

Where the Sidewalk Ends, Columbia, 1984; reissued, 1992.

A Light in the Attic, Columbia, 1985; reissued, 1992.

With others

(With Bob Gibson) Where I'm Bound: Bob Gibson and His12-String Guitar, Elektra, 1964.

(With the Serendipity Singers) The Serendipity Singers Sing of Love, Lies and Flying Festoon, Phillips, 1965.

(With Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show) Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show, Columbia, 1971.

(With Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show) Sloppy Seconds, Columbia, 1972.

(With Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show) Belly Up, Columbia, 1973.

(With Bobby Bare) Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends andLies, RCA, 1973.

(With Tompal Glaser) Tompal, MGM, 1974.

(With Joanne Glasscock) Joanne Glasscock, A&M, 1974.

(With Bobby Bare) Singin' in the Kitchen, RCA, 1975.

(With Bobby Bare) Hard Time Hungrys, RCA, 1975.

(With Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show) Bankrupt, Capitol, 1975.

(With Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show) A Little Bit More, Capitol, 1976.

(With Bobby Bare) The Winner and Other Losers, RCA, 1976.

(With Bobby Bare) Bare, RCA, 1978.

(With Bobby Bare) Down and Dirty, RCA, 1980.

(With Bobby Bare) Drunk and Crazy, Columbia, 1980.

(With Bobby Bare) Drinkin' from the Bottle, Singin' from theHeart, Columbia, 1983.

(With Bob Gibson) Makin' a Mess: Bob Gibson Sings ShelSilverstein, Asylum, 1995.

(With the Old Dogs) Old Dogs, Volume One, Atlantic, 1998.

(With the Old Dogs) Old Dogs, Volume Two, Atlantic, 1998.

(With Fred Koller) No Song Left to Sell, Gadfly, 2001.

(With Pat Dailey) Underwaterland, Olympia, 2002.

(With Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show) I Got Stoned andI Missed It: The Best from Shel Silverstein 1971-1979, Raven, 2003.



McCloud, Barry, Definitive Country—The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, Perigree, 1995.

Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, Country Music: the Encyclopedia, St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.

Smith, Ronald L., Comedy on Record: The Complete CriticalDiscography, Garland, 1988.


"Shel Silverstein, All Music Guide, (July 30, 2004).

"Shel Silverstein," Internet Movie Database, (July 30, 2004).

"Shel Silverstein Obituaries," Banned Width.Com, (September 2, 2004).

Shel Silverstein Official Website, (July 30, 2004).

Additional information was obtained from an interview with Bobby Bare on May 28, 2003.

—Ken Burke

Shel Silverstein

views updated Nov 29 2016

Shel Silverstein

Although Shel Silverstein (1932-1999) did not intend to become a children's writer, he is best known for his poetry for children. The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic are some of his most notable works.

Shel Silverstein was born in 1932 in Chicago, Illinois. He started drawing and writing in his early teens because, according to him, he was not popular with the girls and was not good at sports. He did not have a lot of influences when he started to write and draw. But as he told Jean F. Mercier of Publishers Weekly, "I was also lucky that I didn't have anyone to copy, be impressed by. I had developed my own style." Indeed, that style is what has made him what some call a "literary cult figure."

Silverstein served with the U.S. armed forces in the 1950s, spending time in Korea and Japan. While in the service he drew cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. In 1952, he began his career as a writer and cartoonist for Playboy magazine. He was introduced to the distinguished book editor at Harper and Brothers, Ursula Nordstrom, who convinced him he could write for children.

A Unique Style

Silverstein's poetry for children is often silly, humorous, and a little strange. The accompanying black-and-white illustrations, amusing and sometimes rather morbid, are an integral part of the poetry, often needed in order to interpret the poem itself. Silverstein has been compared to poets such as Edward Lear, A. A. Milne, and Dr. Seuss. Many of his poems are adapted from his song lyrics, and the influence of his song-writing background is apparent in the poems' meters and rhythms. Eric A. Kimmel, in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, characterized Silverstein this way: "His poems read like those a fourth grader would write in the back of his notebook when the teacher's eye was turned." Kimmel goes on to say: "that may be precisely their appeal."

To say there is more than one interpretation of Silverstein's work is an understatement. Some believe it is simply amusing and fun; others contend that the silliness hides deeper symbolism. That symbolism has been classified by some as educational; by others as harmful to children. Regardless of the mixed critical reaction, Silverstein's books seem to be everywhere: libraries, classrooms, children dren's bookshelves, and they are being widely used in elementary schools to teach poetry.

Silverstein's first book for children, Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender Minds, was published in 1961. This was followed by Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back in 1963, about a lion who had kept a gun from an earlier encounter with a hunter and with practice became a good marksman. Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, called the book "daft" and described it as "a nonsense story about utter success."

The Giving Tree

One of Silverstein's most successful early books was The Giving Tree (1964). At first, publishers rejected the story. They thought that it fell between child and adult literature and would not sell. The story begins simply: "Once there was a tree … " and tells the story of a tree who gives everything to the boy she loves (the tree is characterized as female in the story). As a child the boy plays in the tree, gathers its leaves, swings on its branches, and eats its apples. Later he carves his and a girl's initials in its trunk, and as a young man he takes the tree's branches to build a house. As an old man, he needs a boat to take him away from it all, so the tree tells him to cut it down and make a boat, which the old man does. The tree, now just a stump, tells the man when he returns, now very old, to "Sit down and rest," and the tree is happy. But, as is common in Silverstein's work, it is not a happy ending. The tree has given up everything to the boy, who is now a bitter old man.

The story has been interpreted in many ways. Silverstein states in Something About the Author that it simply represents "a relationship between two people: one gives and the other takes." Barbara A. Schram classified it as "dangerous" due to its sexism and called it a "glorification of female selflessness and male selfishness," while William Cole called its message "a backup of 'more blessed to give than to receive."' Christian ministers read it in terms of Christian self-sacrifice, and Alice Digilio assumed the tree represented the selfless love of parents and the boy the ingratitude of children (Children's Literature Review). Despite some negative reviews and some concerns that the book may be too advanced for children, it put Silverstein on the best-seller list for the first time.

Where the Sidewalk Ends Brought Continued Popularity

Silverstein published three other children's books in 1964, in addition to The Giving Tree. They include A Giraffe and a Half, Uncle Shelby's Zoo: Don't Bump the Glump, and Who Wants a Cheap Rhinoceros? It was not until ten years later that he wrote his next children's book, but it became an instant success. Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein (1974) is considered a classic by many. Kimmel in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers asserts that, "No discussion of children's poetry can ignore Where the Sidewalk Endsand A Light in the Attic. [1981]. For better or worse, the monumental success of these two books has transformed the way poetry is taught in American schools." Myra Cohn Livingston in the New York Times Book Review compared one of Silverstein's poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends, part of which reads, "But the taste of a thumb / Is the sweetest taste yet," to Heinrich Hoffmann's 1846 piece "Little Suck-a-Thumb," in which children hear about "the scissors-man," who cuts off the offending thumbs of those who exercise this horrible habit. Unlike Hoffmann, Silverstein placed himself in the child's place much of the time, and his poetry, according to some, makes children feel like they have found a grown-up who understands them.

Where the Sidewalk Ends won the Michigan Young Readers' Award in 1981. The book was immensely popular, despite some content that was deemed "indelicate." For example, the collection includes poems about belching, nose picking, and smelly, disgusting garbage. Some critics continued to point out that Silverstein was "by no stretch of the imagination, a great poet" (Kimmel in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers). Still, Bernice E. Cullinan credited Where the Sidewalk Ends with making more children into poetry-lovers than any other book. Kimmel agreed that Silverstein's greatest contribution was in "convincing millions of children that poetry is neither difficult nor threatening."

The "Missing Piece" Stories

Silverstein provided another challenge of interpretation to readers when he published the two books The Missing Piece (1976) and The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (1981). In the first, the "character" of the book is a circle with a wedge-shaped piece missing who is rolling along in search of its mate. When it does come across the missing piece, however, it is rolling too fast and goes right by it. Instead of ending the book there, Silverstein makes a point of telling the reader that the circle continues on, singing and still searching. Critics have approached the story from many angles, from accrediting it with a life-is-a-journey theme, to condemning it for suggesting that being alone is better than committing to another. In The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, the character is the wedge-shaped piece, first introduced in the previous book, who is looking for an object into which it can insert itself and thus gain a free ride in the world. Acting on the advice of the Big O, the wedge discovers that it can get around by itself after all and does not need someone to carry it. Most assume the message deals with the issue of independence, but not all agree whether such a message is more appropriate for children or divorced adults.

Another Best-Seller

In 1981, Silverstein published another collection of poems and drawings, A Light in the Attic. This book was chosen by School Library Journal as one of the best books of 1981. Leigh Dean in Children's Literature Review credited it with making Silverstein the guru of elementary school teachers' poetry units. It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for more than three years. Containing 136 poems and 175 pages, A Light in the Attic again incorporates sometimes bizarre drawings with light, humorous rhymes about the fears and fantasies of children.

Music and Film

Although Silverstein is best known for his children's poetry, he is also a folksong composer and has written dozens of songs. Some of these include "A Boy Named Sue," "One's on the Way," "Boa Constrictor," and "So Good to So Bad." Many artists have performed his work, including Johnny Cash, Lynn Anderson, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Silverstein also collaborated with the band Dr. Hook, producing a series of successful singles and albums. In 1980, he produced a folksong album titled The Great Conch Train Robbery. Albums of Silverstein's songs recorded by others include Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball (Columbia, 1972); Sloppy Seconds (Columbia, 1972); and Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends, and Lies: The Songs of Shel Silverstein (RCA Victor, 1972). In addition, Silverstein wrote the music for the films Ned Kelly (1970) and Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971); and co-wrote the music for Theives (1977) and Postcards from the Edge (1990). A song from the latter film, "I'm Checkin' Out," written by Silverstein, received nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award in 1991. Silverstein's other venture into the motion picture world came when he wrote the screenplay for Things Change, which was produced as a movie in 1988. Another achievement was the 1981 production of his one-act play "The Lady or the Tiger?" It was produced at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City and starred Richard Dreyfus.

Something for Everyone

Silverstein continued to work as a roving reporter and cartoonist. He was divorced and had one daughter. Because he kept a low profile and avoided publicity in general, little more is known about his personal life. He was a "free spirit," as is evidenced by his statement to Jean F. Merier in Publishers Weekly: "I'm free to leave … go wherever I please, do whatever I want; I believe everyone should live like that. Don't be dependent on anyone else-man, woman, child, or dog. I want to go everywhere, look at and listen to everything. You can go crazy with some of the wonderful stuff there is in life." As mentioned in Something About the Author, he did "hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick one up and experience a personal sense of discovery." Silverstein died at his home in Key West, Florida on May 10, 1999.

Further Reading

Children's Literature Review, edited by Gerard J. Senick, Gale Research, 1983.

Something About the Author, edited by Anne Commire, Gale Research, 1983.

Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, edited by Laura Standley Berger, St. James Press, 1995.

New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1986.

Friday, Sely, "Shel Silverstein," (March 3, 1999). □