A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears
US: Oct 2009
In the fall of 2006 I was invited to sit-in on a local country radio tribute to Johnny Cash. The DJ responsible for the show had done it every year since Cash’s death as a tribute to the man and artist and also as a way to publicize a fund-raiser for the local art-space. I was living in western New York at the time and was relatively new to the area. As a fan of the Man in Black, I jumped at the opportunity to participate. My role was to discuss Cash’s significance in music history as well as his place in the broader culture. That didn’t happen. Instead the show was overwhelmed by phone and email requests for Cash’s songs. And listeners were not requesting the sorts of songs you’d expect. There were few requests for cuts like “Ring of Fire”, or “Jackson”, or even the more recent “Hurt”. Instead the bulk of the requests were for songs from one album, 1964’s Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. And while many listeners wanted to hear “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, the song that garnered the vast majority of requests was “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow”.
The DJ, to his credit, announced that he would play the songs every 20 minutes for the duration of his show but that did little to stop the flood of calls and emails. I confess I didn’t get it right away and when I asked what was going on, the disk jockey laughed and said, “Brother, we’re only 15 minutes off the Seneca Reservation. We have to play these songs at least twice a day and that album is more than 30 years old!” The song “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow” tells the story of the forced relocation of the Seneca as a result of the construction of the Kinzua dam by the Army Corps of Engineers. It has an almost talismanic power in that part of the world. Thirty years after its release Bitter Tears is one of the most requested country albums in Cattaraugus County, New York.
In his new book, A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, writer/filmmaker Antonino D’Ambrosio tells the fascinating story of the evolution of this controversial, albeit somewhat obscure, entry in Cash’s discography. In D’Ambrosio’s rendering the album was the product of the political swirl of the early ‘60s and the occasionally complementary visions of Cash and folksinger Peter La Farge. Five of La Farge’s songs, including “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow”, and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, appear on the album. The story of how these two very different artists collaborated on the project provides the fodder for D’Ambrosio’s narrative.
When the album was released, “Ira Hayes” was the first single. The song was about the Pima Indian who was one of the five marines to raise the flag at Iwo Jima. He returned home to poverty and discrimination and eventually drank himself to death. Country radio stations refused to play what they believed to be an anti-American song. That censorship was compounded when Columbia Records refused to put any of their resources into the album’s marketing. An irate Cash lashed out at the country music industry by way of a full-page “open letter” in Billboard magazine and with the help of friend and colleague Johnny Western began a grass-roots campaign to get country music DJs around the country playing the song. Eventually Bitter Tears peaked at number two on the country music charts and cracked the top 50 on the pop charts. For Johnny Cash it was a sweet victory and late in his life he cited Bitter Tears as one of his personal favorites.
A Heartbeat and a Guitar is an entertaining read if for no other reason than D’Ambrosio’s palpable enthusiasm for his subjects. His “Johnny Cash” is a heroic figure, personal demons and all, who takes on all comers in his bid to give voice to those in society who are largely voiceless. His interest in and passion for Native American issues was real. He dug deep to understand their underlying history and problems, and for years played shows in tribal areas all over the country. As my experience with the Seneca showed, for his loyalty and activism he received their adoration.
Particularly interesting are D’Ambrosio’s descriptions of Peter La Farge, the son of writer/anthropologist Oliver La Farge. Oliver, a New England blue blood, was a successful novelist and long-time advocate on Native issues. Despite being born in New York City, young Peter moved West with his mother at an early age and began cultivating his own personal mythology, complete with Native heritage. After a stint as a rodeo rider, Peter La Farge returned to New York in the late ‘50s and made a name for himself in Greenwich Village as bronco-busting folksinger with a social conscience. When people mistakenly referred to him as an “Indian”, he made no effort to correct them. Like his father, he was especially interested in the continuing mistreatment of Native peoples. Cash also invented a Native heritage for himself although later in his life he shrugged off the story-telling as a product of his then drug-addled existence. Unfortunately, D’Ambrosio makes no effort to understand or interrogate this interesting similarity between the two men or the needs that drove it.
The biggest problem with D’Ambrosio’s text stems from his almost desperate need to connect Cash to the Folk Revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Johnny Cash, he repeatedly asserts, imagined himself as a folksinger, not a country singer. He expends much energy tying him to the Greenwich Village scene and in particular to the politically-motivated Broadsides crowd. Partly this helps us to understand the relationship between Cash and La Farge which spawned Bitter Tears in the first place and there is a lot of interesting research here. But the only way the argument rings true is if you exclude significant material about Cash’s life and career in this period.
When Cash broke with Sam Phillips and Sun Records in 1958 he didn’t go to Nashville or New York and he certainly did not head for the Village coffeehouses. He went to Los Angeles where Columbia Records was well-established and more importantly country music was enormously popular and profitable. Partly it was to take advantage of opportunities in film and television. But there was a significant network of country music television shows, musicians, and venues to play. He hooked up with old friends like Western, Gene Autry, and Merle Travis who awakened his old passion for western ballads. He began rethinking the folk canon, not as a guitar-strumming troubadour or Village folkie, but in his own singular way.
Beginning in 1959 with Songs of Our Soil (not mentioned by D’Ambrosio) and continuing through Ride This Train (1960), Blood, Sweat, and Tears (1963), Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian (1964), Orange Blossom Special (1965), and Sings Ballads of the True West (1965), Cash released a series of what have usually been referred to as his “Americana” albums. His told the stories of working people, Native peoples, railroaders, and cowboys in a fashion that was nothing short a re-visioning of American history. It was folk music of a sort, but with Johnny Cash’s distinct stamp, and those records always charted country. Maybe most telling is that a perusal Cash’s two published memoirs reveal very little about those years and describe a relationship with the folk scene that might best be described as a flirtation.
There is much in A Heartbeat and a Guitar that is interesting and important. Bitter Tears and the halcyon period in which it was produced are worthy of a monograph-length treatment. Unfortunately D’Ambrosio has chosen an interpretive framework that actually limits his subject, Johnny Cash, rather than liberating him.