MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
Consider the many worlds of the late writer and illustrator Shel Silverstein. He was friends with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and with Nashville songwriters such as Kris Kristofferson. His children's books have sold in the tens of millions: "The Giving Tree," "A Light in the Attic," "Where the Sidewalk Ends." He also wrote quirky hit songs in the 1960s and '70s. Now six years after Silverstein's death, there's a new CD with some of his best-known poems and songs, and there's a book titled "Runny Babbit." It's a collection of previously unpublished poems made up of spoonerisms, where the first parts of words are transposed. Here's one poem, "Runny's Jig Bump," read by Dennis Locorriere of the '70s group Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.
Mr. DENNIS LOCORRIERE (Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show): Runny be quimble, Runny be nick, Runny cump over the jandlestick. But now what smells like furning bluff? Guess he didn't hump jigh enough.
BLOCK: Our occasional contributor Mitch Myers is Shel Silverstein's nephew. He wrote the liner notes for the new CD and helped compile the new collection of poems.
Mr. MITCH MYERS (Shel Silverstein's Nephew): The story behind "Runny Babbit" actually goes back about 25 years prior to Shel's death. He had been working on it forever. So I think he was a little ambivalent for quite a while. As I know and as many people do know, Shel was a perfectionist and he would never stop working on something until he was really sure it was finished. He had taken this about as far as he could go and the reason I know--and we all know that--is 'cause he had dedicated the book to his good friend Larry Moyer. And if you look in the book you can see it's dedicated to Marry Loyer.
Mr. MYERS: So we knew he was done and there was just hundreds of great poems and illustrations to choose from.
BLOCK: You mentioned that he felt ambivalent about it. Why do you think he did?
Mr. MYERS: I think he wasn't sure how it would be received. It is and was very different and it's not easy, even for adults, to read. I think actually younger children have a better time at it because they're not so preconceived in their notions of how words work, and the playfulness of it really comes across.
BLOCK: Let's give it a shot. You have a book there, right?
Mr. MYERS: I was hoping that you could read one.
BLOCK: Well, let's both try. There's one I like called "Do Whid It?" And there's a picture of--you see Runny Babbit holding an ax and there's a tree on the ground and there's a man pointing a finger. He's wearing a wig. And here's how it goes.
(Reading) Runny Babbit with his ax chopped down a trerry chee. When Raddy Dabbit asked, `Do whid it?' Runny said, `Mot ne.' Weorge Gashington heard Runny lying and he said, `Oh, my, you'll never pe the bresident 'cause you just lold a tie.'
Mr. MYERS: You know, I just can't help but say that the drawing of the `bresident' looks suspiciously like Bill Clinton.
BLOCK: It kind of does--Doesn't it?--with a wig.
Mr. MYERS: Yeah. And that's all I'll say about that.
BLOCK: Mitch, do you want to read one?
Mr. MYERS: Well, I'll try. Let's try "Runny and Dankee." But if I flub it, you gotta promise not to play this on the radio.
BLOCK: Here we go.
Mr. MYERS: I'm not a great interpreter.
BLOCK: Give it your best shot, Mitch.
Mr. MYERS: (Reading) Dankee Yoodle tent to wown, piding on a rony. He stuck a heather in his fat and malled it cacaroni. He met Runny Babbit hopping where the stound was grony. Runny on his pittle laws, Dankee on his pony. Said Runny, `Oh, dear Dankee, I think a borm just wit me.' Said Dankee, `Oh, poor Runny, rump up and jide here with me.' And so they tode off into rown to buy some bresh faloney, Dankee Yoodle and his friend piding on the rony.
BLOCK: That was perfect. You know, I can just tell that Shel Silverstein would have gotten a real pleasure out of being able to turn pea soup into a spoonerism. Let's listen to that one.
Mr. MYERS: All right.
Mr. LOCORRIERE: "Runny and the Sea Poup." (Reading) Runny went to Snerry Jake's to get some taisin roast. But all Jake had was sea poup, which Runny mated host. He cried, `I won't eat sea poup. I simply cannot bear it.' Snerry said, `Since you won't eat it maybe you can wear it.'
BLOCK: These are such expressive readings from Dennis Locorriere. Tell us a bit about him and his connection with your uncle.
Mr. MYERS: Well, Dennis, along with Ray Sawyer, were the two lead singers of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. And Dr. Hook was a New Jersey bar band before Shel and his friend Ronnie Haffkine brought them into a movie called "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me?" And they used the band in the movie. Not long after that, Columbia Records picked them up and recast them as a Cajun band from somewhere off in the distance, and they started having hit songs with Shel's material.
(Soundbite of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Well, we're big rock singers. We've got golden fingers and we're loved everywhere we go. We sing about beauty and we sing about truth at $10,000 a show.
DR. HOOK AND THE MEDICINE SHOW: (Singing) We take all kind of pills that give us all kind of thrills, but the thrill we've never known is the thrill that'll get ya when you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone...
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Gonna see my picture...
BLOCK: It's such an interesting relationship to think about because he was sort of like their in-house songwriter.
Mr. MYERS: Yes, he wrote all the songs on the first few records and really, really helped them launch their career. But he had done that in different ways. I mean, I think he really helped Johnny Cash when he came up with "A Boy Named Sue." It was his biggest hit ever in his whole life.
BLOCK: Did he write it specifically for Johnny Cash?
Mr. MYERS: No, no. Johnny heard it at a guitar pool at the Cash residence, and June reminded Johnny to bring it with him, the song lyrics, when he was going to perform at San Quentin prison. And they did it pretty much off the cuff, Johnny reading the lyrics off a page on the foot of the stage, and everybody loved it at the prison. And it became a hit--number-two hit in the country.
(Soundbite of "A Boy Named Sue")
Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Well, my daddy left home when I was three and he didn't leave much to Ma and me, just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze. Now I don't blame him 'cause he run, and hid but the meanest thing that he ever did was before he left he went and named me Sue. Well, he must have thought that it was quite a joke and it got a lot of laughs from a lots of folks. Seems I had to fight my whole life through. Some gal would giggle and I'd get red, and some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head. I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named Sue.
BLOCK: You know, I've read that Shel Silverstein, your uncle, with his books was so particular that he would have strong feelings about the typeface and the kind of paper it would be on. Never, I believe, let any of his books get printed in softcover; is that right?
Mr. MYERS: The only one that's in softcover is the "ABZ Book," but all the ones with HarperCollins and all the children's books per se are in hardcover and will remain so, and that was his wish.
BLOCK: Do you know why he had that wish?
Mr. MYERS: Well, I can't say that I discussed it with him, but I do know that he likes things to be classy and forever. And I think that the hardcover really kind of symbolized that whole situation.
BLOCK: I was wondering if that might have been sort of a daunting prospect, trying to put out a book of his posthumously. You had to be thinking `Would he like this? Would this be a book he'd be proud of?'
Mr. MYERS: You know, the thing about Shel and even just talking about him here is for the most part the family really wishes to remain anonymous, and I think that even after he passed away we were still scared of him and afraid to make him mad and didn't really want to go beyond a certain point. And I think we came as close as we could without him being around.
BLOCK: Mitch Myers, thanks very much.
Mr. MYERS: Well, thank you.
BLOCK: Mitch Myers is the nephew of the late Shel Silverstein. You can find illustrations and poems from "Runny Babbit" and selections from the CD "The Best of Shel Silverstein" at our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) You'll see green alligators and long-neck geese, some humpyback camels and some chimpanzees, some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you're born, you're never gonna see no unicorn.
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.