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January 4, 2008

Book Notes - Lisa Rogak ("A Boy Named Shel")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Before reading A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein:, I knew little of Shel Silverstein beyond that he was a bestselling children's author and had written Johnny Cash's hit song, "A Boy Named Sue." Lisa Rogak explores the life of this prolific and multi-talented man in depth. Filled with his children's book writing and songwriting (he copyrighted over 800 songs), Silverstein's life touched many of the cultural idols of his time (Hugh Hefner, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, among others). This unauthorized biography treats Silverstein's creative genius with respect, and is surprisingly the first biography written about his life.

In her own words, here is Lisa Rogak's Book Notes essay for her book, A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein:

A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein, my third full-length biography, was published in November 2007 by St. Martins Press. It was by far the hardest book I’ve ever written because Shel wanted to squeeze as much as possible out of every second of every day, and he flung himself into the world with so much abandon that it was like writing and researching five books instead of one.

One thing that constantly surprises me is how many people don’t know that Shel wrote songs in addition to children’s books. Well, he also wrote plays, short stories, movie scores, and one screenplay in addition to sketching and doodling virtually nonstop, but a quick glance at the BMI registry shows over 800 songs written or co-written by Shel. His songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, The Irish Rovers, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, and Dr. Hook, among many others.

He recorded his own albums as well. True, a few were his raspily-spoken, screeched, and whispered versions of his wildly popular children’s books, but if you compare his children’s poems with his adult songs, you’ll quickly realize they all have the giddily subversive streaks that permeates most of his work regardless of the format.

His 1962 album Inside Folk Songs contains the first recorded version of “The Unicorn.” However, as Shel “recited” it, the song bears little resemblance to the version made popular six years later by The Irish Rovers. Jerry Wexler, who was responsible for producing Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, was brought on as producer. “That record only sold about five hundred copies, but all of them were purchased by aspiring songwriters in Nashville,” said Wexler.

While I worked on A Boy Named Shel, I listened to The Great Conch Train Robbery a lot. The reaction again was unanimous approval. “I’m embarrassed to tell you how many times a week I listen to it,” said one friend.

But that’s not too surprising. Indeed, Conch Train is nothing more than an R-rated version of A Light in the Attic set to music, featuring the stories of adults instead of kids. The same motivation appears in both: the whacked humor viewed through a gimlet eye, the refusal to look down on the reader or listener, and the knowledge that both kids and adults want to feel like they have some control over their lives and that, every so often, they can get away with something.

I also listened to Hairy Jazz frequently, since it was basically a Dixieland album, and I love Dixieland.

My own musical tastes are no less eclectic. I’m a classically trained pianist, though like Shel, I’ve enjoyed picking up different musical instruments from time to time and seeing what comes out. I also play acoustic bass and accordion and listen to a wide variety of music from most genres. Here’s what’s on my playlist.

Arvo Part: Tabula Rasa. This modern Estonian composer creates musical stories with chorales and ensembles of twelve cellos that are haunting yet strangely uplifting. My favorite is “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.”

Dvorak, Bagatelles opus 47. I’ve always loved Dvorak, but am particularly fond of this piece because it uses an oddball instrument called the harmonium which is typically used in Indian music.

Pepe & The Bottle Blondes: Late Night Betty, Pambrosia; Pink Martini: Hang On Little Tomato, Sympathique. These two groups are guaranteed to make me dance while doing the dishes, which like running or swimming, helps me to work out nagging little problems in any book or article I’m working on.

Shel Silverstein: F*ck ‘Em. This was an incredibly hard work to find. It wasn’t even a bootleg, but an acetate one-off that Shel recorded in 1970 during a demo session. “F*ck ‘Em” was the first song on the record. The session included his crudest and most raucous songs, and though it would have no trouble being released today, back then he must have done it as a joke and knew it would never come out. Other songs included “Julie’s Working,” about a prostitute, and “I Love My Right Hand,” no explanation necessary.

Lisa Rogak and A Boy Named Shel links:

the author's website
the book's page at the publisher

Chicago Tribune review
Concord Monitor review
A Garden Carried in the Pocket review
Nashua Telegraph review
Nashville Scene review

author interview at Book a Week with Jen
author interview at Chicago Public Radio (mp3 link)
author profile at The Bergen Record

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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