Ethics of Giving; Shel Silverstein

I had a friend who once said that all giving is essentially selfish, because the giver only does it to make him or herself feel better. It’s an Ayn Randian position: altruism is dangerous and selfishness acceptable, because your highest moral purpose is the achievement of your own happiness.

I was reminded of this yesterday when reading this Charles Kenny article in Foreign Policy about SWEDOW and the damage that wealthy countries unwittingly do to the developing world through giving.

My favourite story about giving is Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree from 1964, now translated into more than 30 languages. It’s deceptively simple at first glance, but looking deeper it raises key ethical questions about giving and selfishness. It has even spawned symposium-style debates. The book is about a boy who becomes a man, and a tree who gives to him during his life, and keeps giving until it has nothing left to give. It’s incredibly moving, and for me somehow speaks about humanity’s relationship with the earth or nature.

Some years ago I met someone who had known Shel Silverstein – Ray “Dr Hook” Sawyer. Silverstein wrote many of Dr Hook & the Medicine Show’s famous songs in the 1970s (Sylvia’s Mother, Cover of the Rolling Stone and others). Sawyer was on tour in Australia, and I was backstage with the band. I asked Sawyer what Silverstein was like, and he told me that “Shel was like no one you’ve ever met before in your life”.

Sawyer, an infinitely warm and engaging person, told me the story of the creation of the Cover of the Rolling Stone song:

“I was with Shel at a diner, we were almost finished.
Shel said “Wait here, I need to go to the bathroom.”
The check came, and I paid, but Shel hadn’t come back.
I went to the bathroom to look for him, and there was an open window and no Shel – he’d just gone.
About 12 months later, out of the blue I got a call from Shel.
“Do you have a pencil?” He didn’t say hello.
“Why? And where’d you go to?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter – I’m in a payphone and the time is running out – quick Ray, do you have a pencil?”
Because I … DON’T … have … a pencil – So: DO YOU HAVE A PENCIL?” he shouted.
So I put down the phone and grabbed a pencil and asked what the hell he wanted.
Shel said “I have a song in my head – write these words and the tune down, before I lose it.”
He then sang ‘Cover of the Rolling Stone’ – the tune, with the first verse and chorus.
When it was done, he told me to record it, it will be a hit, then he hung-up the phone.”

It made top ten in 1973.

Nearly 40 years later, I read my kids Silverstein’s wonderful books and will admit to having Dr Hook on my iPod. And an autographed “Ray ‘Dr Hook’ Sawyer $500 Bill” is framed in my poolroom.

Dr Hook $500

A Gift from Ray, friend of Shel


  1. Hahaha. I LOVE this story! I can be the same way as Shel when I hav a good idea in my head and can’t find a pen. :)

  2. Mate that bill must be worth at least $550 by now including appreciation. Ray gave it to you so that YOU would feel good. Whether he feels good about doing it is incidental.

  3. He went to Portland and took a job as a lumberjack, trytng to straighten himself out. Back in those days, before the accident, Ray had the hooded eyes and the slicked-back hair of the meanest cat in Portland. And he couldn’t stay away from wine and ups. One night he was sleeping in the passenger seat of a Corvair while an equally fucked-up friend drove. Down where the road meets the Columbia River, they hit a guardrail. Ray woke up with blood in both eyes. The right front wheel of the Corvair had pinned him up against the seat and just before he passed out, he remembers the flashing lights, someone giving commands and someone else cutting him out with a blowtorch. He spent a year in the hospital and another six months back home in Chickasaw, getting well. They had removed his eye and put a steel brace in his leg. The time in the hospital got him off wine and speed at last.