You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard or even heard of Johnny Cash’s brilliant 1964 concept album, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It wasn’t one of his best sellers, though one of its key tracks, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, would become a fair-sized hit. Without knowing the album’s history, the more cynical among us might believe that it was released a decade later, as some kind of a cash-in on halfhearted environmentalism and a popular sense of civil rights. You might even think that it was a grasp at capturing a younger audience, one that was convinced that all of us have Native American blood coursing through our veins.
But this is a time when the cynics suffer defeat, as the record’s history and its contents reveal more about Cash’s character and artistry and, alternately, the album’s prescience. Fifty years on controversy still surrounds relationships between Native and white cultures, something a new version of Bitter Tears (titled Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited) , featuring contemporary acts such as Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and the Milk Carton Kids covering the album in full, is sure to highlight.
Issuing the album with a new cast rather than simply redressing the original is a wise one. Though we’re told that the Cash family archives are seemingly unlimited, the onslaught of releases in the late master’s name over the last decade-plus has caused a kind of Cash fatigue for some. Moreover, this recasting, featuring turns from Emmylou Harris and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops highlights how the plight of Native Americans continues, despite the hopes and dreams of the American Indian movement. The original, though, holds an interesting place in the Cash cannon and lore.
Bitter Tears stands out for several reasons, one of which being that many consider it Cash’s first concept album. But we have to use that phrase loosely when discussing it, because although the songs are thematically connected, they don’t follow a dramatic structure that adds up to a full story. Cash had been releasing thematically connected albums since at least 1959, with the dark meditation on death and dying called Songs of Our Soil. But 1960’s Ride This Train bears many of the same hallmarks, as do later albums such as 1963’s Blood, Sweat and Tears and 1972’s America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song.
Concept or not Bitter Tears was a rugged and stubborn artistic statement from a man who was developing a vision of America that was complex and sometimes at odds with the world the music industry and even his own fans had.
The story goes, at least the one told in Antonino D’Ambrosio’s excellent 2009 book, A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, that the album really began two years before its release when Cash, spent from a difficult and erratic performance at Carnegie Hall, visited the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village where he heard Peter La Farge perform “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. La Farge was a veteran of the Korean War who, by 1962, had built a body of work that was largely dedicated to Native American issues. La Farge’s Native lineage has been discussed at length elsewhere, and whether he had tribal ties or not, he remained an outspoken voice on matters pertaining to the American Indian.
Though Cash boasted at the time that he was of Mohawk and Cherokee dissent, he later retracted the claims. But by all accounts he didn’t retract any of the beliefs he displayed in Bitter Tears, a record that, by several accounts, he remained fond of throughout his life. By 1964 he’d already written “Old Apache Squaw”, which appeared on Songs of Our Soil, so this was not entirely new subject matter to him. That might also explain why he connected immediately with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”.
Some of the attraction must have been musical, but lyrically the song contains exactly the kind of American tragedy that Cash would sing about time and again in the coming decades. Hayes was Pima, a Native band that is mostly found in Arizona, and a World War II veteran, albeit one of its most visible ones. Hayes, a Marine, was one of six soldiers to raise the American flag at Iwo Jima, an event captured in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic 1945 photograph.
A decade after the war Hayes was dead; he’d returned to the United States in flesh but his spirit, like that of so many veterans, remained somewhere else. He battled alcoholism for the rest of his life; his final days were hardly fitting of a man who’d worked hard and risked as much as he had.
When Cash finally entered the studio—and it has been noted that he did a great deal of research before committing Bitter Tears to tape—he came armed with eight songs in all, five of which were La Farge compositions, two from his own hand, and one a co-write with Johnny Horton. Once completed, Columbia had no real interest in issuing the record and radio stations had even less interest in playing it. Some in the industry considered Cash an intellectual type who saw himself as too sophisticated for Nashville.
Cash rallied against the industry and challenged assumptions about himself and his album and, in the end, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” became a hit, though Bitter Tears would ultimately languish in obscurity within Cash’s oeuvre. For some the album was a matter of epiphany, the realization that Cash was not “just” a country artist but also a folksinger. Of course, that element of his work had long been there, as much as it was an integral part of early country music.
However, his underdog ethos didn’t disappear after his battles over the 1964 release. In 1965 he issued Orange Blossom Special and could be seen sitting atop a train car in a workingman’s shirt and hat. The content on the album was equally intriguing and arguably almost as subversive: He covered three Dylan tunes and contributed his own poignant “All God’s Children Ain’t Free”.
More subversive works lay ahead. His rebellious streak didn’t end there or in the ’60s. He released The Man in Black in 1971, a record that found Cash offering his own kind of protest against the Vietnam War. His records throughout the latter part of the decade would see him traverse the thin line between being part of the establishment and being an outsider and an avuncular figure in the Outlaw Country movement.
It’s interesting to note that really none of the acts participating in this new take on Bitter Tears are that closely associated with the current country scene. They represent the middle class more than the impoverished and they represent music that is most often called Americana and sometimes misunderstood as bluegrass. But their participation is as much a statement about the evolution of American music as it is about the music’s politics. For all the patriot fever flashing in contemporary country videos it’s hard to imagine anyone in country’s Top 40 who could pull of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” with any sort of authenticity.
For all that’s changed in the decades since Cash released this most controversial work, plenty has not. Native Americans still struggle to be part of a larger dialogue, though they are, in many ways an unheard minority. Despite early predictions that Sherman Alexie’s film Smoke Signals would usher in a new era of Native American cinema upon its release in 1998 that wave has yet to come crashing on our shores. Despite attempts of some high profile artists, such as Robbie Robertson, to integrate Native sounds into popular music, there’s an utter shortage of music coming from America’s reservations.
Recent issues involving sports mascots and the misappropriation of traditional headdress have come to the fore while, sadly, issues of fishing and gaming rights fail to capture national attention the way that they do in regions where treaties are ignored or violated. In this way, the climate is perfect for us to reexamine Bitter Tears. At worst, this music and the stories it tells will be ignored by the largest segment of the population, at best it might open a gate that invites Native people into the boisterous conversation that the rest of America has been enjoying for so long.