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Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" Was Written by Shel Silverstein

© Chris Hoffmann/dpa/Corbis / © Jeff Albertson/CORBIS

In February 1969, Johnny Cash had a party at his house in Hendersonville, TN. As the evening went on, the party turned into a guitar pull, with some of Johnny's friends trying out their latest songs. "Bob Dylan sang 'Lay Lady Lay,'" recalled Cash. "Kris Kristofferson sang 'Me and Bobby McGee.' Joni Mitchell sang 'Both Sides Now.' Graham Nash sang 'Marrakesh Express.' And Shel Silverstein sang 'A Boy Named Sue.'"

Cash loved Silverstein's tune and asked him to write down the words. He might not have realized it then, but the song was about to change his life. He said, "We were leaving the next day to go to California and June said, 'Take the words to 'A Boy Named Sue' to California. You'll want to record that at San Quentin.' I said, 'I don't have time to learn that song before the show.' And she said, 'Well, take them anyway.'"

Cash's recorded performance before the inmates at San Quentin prison was a follow-up to the previous year's hit album, At Folsom Prison. (Cash had been playing shows at prisons since 1957.) For San Quentin, Cash rehearsed a set of material that included past hits such as "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire." But his wife June encouraged him to add Silverstein's humorous song to his set.

Cash said, "I'd only sung it the first time the night before and I read it off as I sang it. I still didn't know the words. As a last resort, I pulled those lyrics out and laid them on the music stand, and when it came time that I thought I was brave enough, I did the song."

Despite reading the lyrics, Cash gave the song his all, investing it with an actor's bravado. There's also a spontaneity and joy about the performance, with Cash obviously amused by Silverstein's clever lyrics. And the inmates loved it, whooping and laughing along, especially when Cash shouted the lines, "My name is Sue! How do you do? Now you're gonna die!" From the ovation at the song's end, Cash suspected he might have a hit on his hands.

Columbia Records agreed, releasing "A Boy Named Sue" as a single. But they had to clean up a few lines before country radio would play it. With "son-of-a-bitch" and "damn" bleeped out of the song, it topped the country charts for five weeks straight, then soared to #2 on the pop charts, becoming Cash's biggest-selling single ever and one of his signature tunes.

And what of the man behind the hit? Shel Silverstein, the creator of classic children's books Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree and a cartoonist for Playboy, was also a songwriter who penned hits for Dr. Hook and Bobby Bare. Silverstein said the inspiration for "A Boy Named Sue" came from his friend, radio announcer and humorist Jean Shepherd, who'd been teased as a kid because of his feminine first name. "I fist-fought my way through every grade in school," Shepherd later said.

"Sue" earned Silverstein a Grammy for Best Country Song, and in 1970, he appeared on The Johnny Cash Show to duet with the Man in Black on the hit:

And in 1978, Silverstein wrote and recorded a sequel, "The Father of a Boy Named Sue," which retold the story from the dad's point of view.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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iStock

Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Space
More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in own solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last week, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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