Murder and Blueberry Pies: Shel Silverstein as Songwriter
Gather ‘round fellows I’ll tell you some tales about murder and blueberry pies
And heroes and hells and bottomless wells and lullabies, legends and lies
And gather round ladies come sit at my feet I’ll sing about warm sunny skies
There’s mermaids and beans and lovin’ machines in my lullabies, legends and lies
I’ll sing you a song then I’ll shuffle along with my lullabies, legends and lies
There is a philosophy to Shel Silverstein. The uninhibited way in which he lived his life, as well as his insatiable thirst for it, permeates the tone of his work. There is an adultness to his acclaimed books of children’s poems and stories, which elevates them to the universally recognized status they enjoy to this day. Rather than pandering down to children, he spoke to them on their level, unashamedly employing occasional crude humor to bolster morals and learning lessons. As a weird and bearded, dope-smoking, bohemian songwriter of adult country music, he resorted to colorful childlike humor to tell tales of loss, substance abuse, neglect, and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. In Shel Silverstein’s world nothing is conventional and everything is possible.
This philosophy clearly resonates with the world. In his rich career, Shel Silverstein released 21 books of cartoons, stories, and poems, 12 solo albums of original songs, including multiple movie soundtracks, several plays, a screenplay, countless award-winning and hit singles and album cuts by other artists, and was the subject of a tribute album released in 2010, Twistable Turnable Man.
The famed children’s cartoonist first gained notoriety not for his children’s books but for his work in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. He contributed to the men’s lifestyle magazine from the mid-1950’s until the mid-1970’s as a cartoonist and travel correspondent, often interjecting himself into his cartoons and dispatches in a manner that foreshadowed the New Journalism movement that would be defined by such writers as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.
In 1964, Silverstein published his first children’s book. The Giving Tree is a poignant parable about the ambiguous relationship between a boy and a tree. The menacing black and white photograph of Silverstein’s bald and bearded giant head on the back cover only accentuates the ambiguity in the tone of the work.
It would be a decade before he would write his masterpiece, 1974’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. The title invokes the excitement and mystery found past the fringes of societal norms and conventional thinking. Silverstein was a master at presenting children with the perception to think outside of the box, to inspire all the goodness and innovation and creativity that lie somewhere off the beaten path.