SHEL SILVERSTEIN | FREAKIN’ AT THE FREAKERS BALL IN THE SKY

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Shel Silverstein– the late, great, cartoonist, poet, author, playwright, singer, songwriter, musician… photo by Alice Ochs

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“Sometimes he wears a beard, and shaves his head.  Sometimes he shaves his beard, and wears his head.

Sometimes he’s writing articles, and drawing cartoons for Playboy magazine.

He’s in Hollywood working on movies.  Sometimes, he’s lonesome.

But wherever he is, he’s the one and only Shel Silverstein–

and one of the most talented guys I’ve ever met.”

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–Johnny Cash quoting one of America’s most prolific and revered songwriters, Harlan Howard.

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Shel Silverstein– Songs and Stories

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My first introduction to Shel Silverstein was as a child– through his magical self-illustrated book of poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends. It was the kind of book that made a kid hungry to read– you were mesmerized by the thought of what was awaiting your curiosity on the next page, and the next , and the next, and the next.

Around that same time, “Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show” was on heavy rotation at home, especially– Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball. It was just kinky enough to capture the ol’ man’s fancy. I have to admit that as a kid, the songs naughty bits did not go unnoticed– and when I learned that Uncle Shelby had penned them…well, shit if it didn’t blow my fragile eggshell mind. “Dr. Hook” had a couple other hits back then too, also written by Silverstein– The Cover of the Rolling Stone, and Sylvia’s Mother.

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The artist extraordinaire, Shel Silverstein (lt.) photo by Larry Moyer (rt.) photo by Lawson Little

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Shel Silverstein performed and recorded his own songs, but he’s best known as a songwriter extraordinaire. He wrote lots of songs for lots of folks, and been covered by some of the best in the business– Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Marianne Faithfull, Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, Jerry Reed, and the list goes on and on.

In 2010, Twistable Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein was released. Produced by Bobby Bare, Sr. (Silverstein’s friend and collaborator) with help from his son Bobby Bare, Jr., it features performances by John Prine, Andrew Bird, Kris Kristofferson, My Morning Jacket, Todd Snider, Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, Sarah Jarosz with Black Prairie, and the Bobby Bare, Sr. & Bobby Bare, Jr. It’s a great way to hear Silverstein’s music in a new light, and remember the incredibly unique and gifted artist who back in ’99 left us for the Freaker’s Ball up in the sky.

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ca. 1973, New York– Artist/author/songwriter Shel Silverstein — Image by © Jeff Albertson/Corbis

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Silverstein’s classic “Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball” album. Photo of Dustin Hoffman & Shel Silverstein.

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The Unstoppable Shel Silverstein–

In 1930 or ’32 (depending on who you believe), Silverstein was born in Chicago. He starts drawing at an early age, attends the Art Institute of Chicago–drops out after one year.  Enlists in the military, and his cartoons are featured in in Pacific Stars and Stripes during the mid 1950s. Back in the civilian world Silverstein returns to Chicago, and his cartoons start popping up in publications like– Look and Sports Illustrated. He joins-on with Playboy magazine in the late 1950s, travels the world “documenting” sexuality and becomes their leading cartoonist– working for them into the 1970s.  Oh yeah, then he started penning world-renowned children’s books and a slew of critically hailed pop songs– and played guitar, piano, saxophone and the trombone.  Unbelievable.

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“The phrase “Renaissance man” tends to get overused these days, but apply it to Shel Silverstein– and it practically begins to seem inadequate. Not only has he produced with seeming ease, Country music hits and popular songs, but he’s been equally successful at turning his hand to poetry, short stories, plays, and children’s books. Moreover, his whimsically hip fables, beloved by readers of all ages, have made him a stalwart of bestseller lists.” A Light in the Attic,” most remarkably, showed the kind of staying power on the New York Times chart — two years, to be precise — thought that most of the biggest names (John Grisham, Stephen King and Michael Crichton) have never equaled for their own blockbusters. His unmistakable illustrative style is another crucial element to his appeal. Just as no writer sounds like Shel, no other artist’s vision is as delightfully, sophisticatingly cockeyed.”

–Otto Penzler, proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City

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from top left: James Merrill, Evan Rhodes, Edward Hower, Alison Lurie, Shel Silverstein, Bill Manville, Joseph Lash, Arnold Sundgaard, John Williams, Richard Wilbur, Jim Boatwright.
from bottom left: Susan Nadler, Thomas McGuane, William Wright, John Ciardi, David Kaufelt, Philip Caputo, Philip Burton, John Malcolm Brinnin.

“How many words is a picture worth if its subjects have penned more than many thousands of bestselling words apiece, already read by tens of thousands of readers? If in their beach bags are five Pulitzer Prizes, a few National Book Awards, two Bollingen Prizes, and office stationery from the U.S. Poet Laureate?” –photo at Hidden Beach by Don Kincaid in 1984. via
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Bobby Bare with friend and collaborator Shel Silverstein. In 1973 Bare released a double album of Shel Silverstein songs, “Bobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies.”

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15 thoughts on “SHEL SILVERSTEIN | FREAKIN’ AT THE FREAKERS BALL IN THE SKY

  1. Ah JP, you did it again… Always taking me back. I’m a fan lifelong fan of Shel, I read The Giving Tree and poems from A Light in the Attic, and Where the Sidewalk ends to my kids all the time. The Missing Piece and others are on my short list to get for them next. Thanks for sharing these pictures and videos. I had no idea he wrote A boy named Sue. and I think I’ll learn his song about a loving a father to sing to my little girl. Keep ‘em coming! Cheers!

  2. Yet another warped time – or time warp? – for me, reading Where the Sidewalk Ends in my sandbox, no joke. I have all of his books, now…but at first mention, this poem comes to mind every time: “Hug O’ War” And, it appears upon a quick look into my internet machine, that someone else appreciated more than I did – they scanned it in and enabled me to share it here:

  3. I think this is from him, it is my favorite…

    “There’s too many legs in the tub.
    There’s too many elbows to scrub.
    I’ve washed a behind,
    That’s not even mine.
    There’s too many legs in the tub.”

    • We memorized that poem as kids:

      There are too many kids in this tub,
      There are too many elbows to scrub.

      I just washed a behind
      That I am sure wasn’t mine.

      There are too many kids in this tub.

  4. Shel has always had a place in my heart. I met him when he visited my elementary school in Phx. He was awesome! I have always been fan of Where the Sidewalk Ends. Thanks for this post!
    JB

  5. “If you are a dreamer, come in. ..If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean-buyer… If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire, for we have some flax-golden tales to spin…. Come in…” ~shel silverstein
    is the quote that greets folks at my front door…
    xoxo

  6. We just want to say how much we love your blog. Sometimes we forget to look and then remember and it’s so exciting, because there’s so much cool stuff to look at! Keep up the great work. It’s interesting, fun, inspiring and not at all pretentious. It’s a class act!!

  7. yet another reason why this is the finest blog out there. Johnny and Shel together on stage is like me as a young boy and me as a rebellious teenager getting along at last.

  8. The illustration gracing the cover of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” is my earliest memory of existential feeling. Thanks to Mr. Silverstein’s poems and artistry there will always be a curious and awestruck place in my heart.

    Thanks for the memories JP!

  9. What a great tribute to Shel! It might also be noted that for years his best friend was humorist Jean Shepherd (who frequently complained on his radio programs that people sometimes thought, because of the spelling of his first name, that he was a woman). With no doubt in my mind, I believe that Shel (known for kidding his friends in public) wrote “A Boy Named Sue” to kid Jean. They wrote liner notes and other appreciations for each others works. Jean wrote that Shel was the most contiuously funny guy he ever met. Shel dedicated “Uncle Shelby’s A B Z Book” to Jean. Shel appeared in Jean’s 1959 theater piece “Look, Charlie” (and drew the program for it), and he also has a cameo mention in my “Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.” Jean also, with a metaphorical elbow to the ribs, gave Shel a few moments on his radio show one night. They died the same year and The New York Times, in its annual magazine issue devoted to prominent people who had died that year, gave best buddies Shel and Jean a half-page each, side by side.

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