Happy Birthday, Johnny Cash! Remember the Fighter for Native Rights
Today, as we celebrate Johnny Cash’s birthday today (he would have been 79), many will focus on Cash as a brash balladeer and rebel. A truer portrait of the music star, however, would extol Cash as an engaged citizen and artist concerned about the human condition.
In his own words, Cash described his concerns: “Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don't see much reason to change. The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we're not making any moves to make things right. There's still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Cash offered those words not about his hit song “Man in Black” but rather his little-known and controversial 1964 Indian folk protest album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.
“I’m still particularly proud of Bitter Tears,” Cash said. The record is anchored by “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a stirring anti-war song that tells the story of Pima Indian Ira Hayes. Hayes, a war hero who was immortalized in the famous Iwo Jima flag raising photo and the Marine Corps War Memorial monument in Washington, died a lonely, ignoble death.
Cash came across “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” in May 1962, when he saw little known folksinger Peter La Farge perform it at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café. Once he listened to “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” and “Custer,” La Farge’s folk songs depicting the Native struggle in moving detail, Cash knew he could no longer escape history.
Bitter Tears was first recorded at Columbia Records’ Nashville studio in the spring of 1964. At that time there had been some mobilization around Native rights, but Cash offered the fledgling movement a popular voice and honest testimony on the struggles of Native people.
As Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement puts it, “Johnny Cash just smashed out with Bitter Tears. . . . It’s the earliest and most significant statement on behalf of Native people and our issues.” Cash was at the height of his popularity at the time, scoring a crossover hit with “Ring of Fire” in 1963 and then a number one country album in 1964 with I Walk the Line.
It was a turbulent time, however, and the last thing many wanted was for another plaintiff to be added in the case against American injustice. A lot of people certainly didn’t want to hear it from Cash.
Returning from the Newport Folk Festival, where he first performed “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” Cash was shocked to learn that there was a movement under way to censor the record and in particular the single “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Cash’s longtime emcee, Johnny Western, recounts that “the DJs that only a year before were playing ‘Ring of Fire’ refused to play ‘Ira Hayes.’ ” One editor of a country music magazine demanded that Cash resign from the Country Music Association because “you and your crowd are just too intelligent to associate with plain country folks, country artists and country DJs.”
Cash decided to fight back. He composed a letter aimed at the entire record industry and placed it in Billboard as a full-page ad. "D.J.'s -- station managers -- owners, etc., where are your guts?’ he challenged. Cash insisted that the industry explain its resistance to his single. Shocked by the resistance, he fought back against the shadowy boycott brewing against his album. “’Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine,” Cash said. “So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam.”
Today, as Johnny Cash fans eagerly await the next offering of unreleased music as they did last year at this time with American VI: Ain’t No Grave, the situation for Native people remains just as difficult and complex as it was when Bitter Tears debuted some 45 years ago.
Native people face obstacles to health care, education, job opportunities, and self-determination. A third are uninsured and a quarter live in poverty. What the numbers can’t measure is the impact that countless treaty violations and failed government polices like termination have had in shaping the situation that now exists.
As Cash sums it up in “Drums:” “We broke your hearts and bent your journeys/broken treaties left us cursed.”
With his new record, Cash returns to influences from the Bitter Tears period.
First, he offers a beautifully haunting interpretation of Ed McGurdy’s peace song, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” It was McGurdy that brought Cash to the Gaslight that night in 1962 and introduced him to Peter La Farge.
Next, he honors one of the folk revival’s loudest voices of protest, Tom Paxton, (a friend of La Farge), by covering his “Can Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound.”
In the end, Cash’s Bitter Tears links civil rights, Native rights, and human rights allowing us to better understand how all these causes are united. Cash remained dedicated to the Native cause for the rest of his life while inspiring fellow musicians including Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Steve Earle to lend their voices in support. When Cash met with President Nixon in July 1972 to discuss prison reform while the Vietnam War was still raging, Nixon asked the music star to perform a few songs, including Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac.” Instead Cash performed “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
In a career spanning more than four decades, Cash’s largely ignored Bitter Tears is his true masterpiece—it is the fulcrum of his art and life. Recorded four years before he famously played at Folsom Prison, four years before the American Indian Movement formed and staged the takeover of Alcatraz, and six years before recording “Man in Black,” Bitter Tears is the record in which Cash’s legacy lives most profoundly; it is music in search of the most important thing art can achieve: telling the truth.
Antonino D’Ambrosio is a writer, filmmaker, and visual artist based in Brooklyn, NY. Legendary musician Pete Seeger describes his book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears “as a rare work that is beautiful and inspiring.” The paperback edition will be released in May. D’Ambrosio is the founder/executive director of La Lutta NMC, a media and production non-profit.
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