Review: Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian – Johnny Cash

Posted: May 15, 2013 in 1960's, 5/5, Artist, Country, Era, Genre, Johnny Cash, Music Reviews
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Bitter TearsIf you follow Johnny Cash’s career, you’ll soon learn that apart from having one of the most distinctive voices in country music, and an often sublime gift for songwriting, he was also an archivist and champion for other songwriters as well.  His 1964 release, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, is in many ways a tribute to Peter La Farge as much as it is a cry for the plight of indigenous peoples.

Like many folk singers, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie included, La Farge arrived on the New York folk scene telling tall tales of an imagined past that helped them build them street cred amongst an increasingly hip, elitest scene.  Whether or not he was actually American Indian himself, La Farge carved out a niche for himself singing songs of American Indian life.

The Ballad of Ira Hayes – telling the tragic story of the man who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, only to wind up a forgotten, drunk veteran – debuted on his 1962 LP, Iron Mountain.  Bob Dylan put his poem As Long as the Grass Shall Grow to words and sang it at Carnegie Hall.  Then, in 1964 he released the first of two native-themed albums – As Long… and then On the Warpath.

Cash’s own Bitter Tears, then, certainly takes these releases as his starting point, although he predates the release of On the Warpath by a few months.  Five of the eight tracks here are written by La Farge, including Ira Hayes, which Cash took to number three.  Clearly something about La Farge’s words resonated with Cash and inspired his own writing.

Cash had already demonstrated an interest in aboriginal affairs.  The opening monologue to Ride this Train reminds the listener that America was taken from its native peoples by the white man.  Not surprisingly, then, this is an album of conflict.  Green Grass documents the flooding of Seneca nation land for the building of the Kinzua Dam.  Apache Tears and Custer speak of war between Indians and whites.  The Talking Leaves relates the clash of oral and written culture, with a father explaining to his son the white leaves with bird tracks on them – paper and pen – left behind by the dead soldiers after a battle. White Girl tells of an Indian man rejected by a white lover, and in The Vanishing Race, Cash takes on the perspective of the Navajao, lamenting their diminishing number.

Nowhere is the conflict clearer than in Drums:

Well you may teach me this land’s hist’ry but we taught it to you first

We broke your hearts and bent your journeys broken treaties left us cursed

Even now you have to cheat us even though you think us tame

In our losing we found proudness in your winning you found shame

Here La Farge is his most direct.  To hear, “in 500 years of fighting not one Indian turned white,” is still startling today.  While some of the images have dated with age, the message remains raw and haunting.   Cash himself commented, “By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage; I felt every word of those songs, particularly ‘Apache Tears’ and ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes.’ I meant every word, too. I was long past pulling my punches.”  This was obviously a deeply personal project for Cash, and advanced his image as a campaigner for justice and the plight of the forgotten.

Musically, the album sees Cash in fine form.  Accompanied by the Tennessee Three and the Carters, the overall sound is sparse, sometimes stripped right down to Cash’s voice and drum accompaniment.  All told, then, it’s hard to fault this release, and you’d be hard pressed to find another one that better represents who Cash was, both musically and ideologically.


Other songs from the era:

  • Bootleg Vol. 3 features Johnny’s set from the Newport Folk Festival.  He was playing a day late, not realizing he couldn’t travel form Nevada to Rhode Island in a day!  The audio mix leaves a lot to be desired – we mostly hear Johnny’s voice and Luther’s lead guitar – but the set is great.  Big River opens with a thick, fat lead guitar sound, and the rest of the classics –  Folsom Prison Blues, I Still Miss Someone, and I Walk the Line – are played perfectly by the Tennesee Three.  Elsewhere in the set, we’re given a hilarious version of Rock Island Line: When he gets thirsty and it’s suggested he have a beer, he says, “I don’t drink any more… I don’t drink any less”.  He introduces Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright and plays a magical subdued version, far better than his forthcoming studio recording.  Ira Hayes is told softly and reverentially, and then he closes it off with a simple acoustic rendition of Keep on the Sunny Side filled out with a few key changes.  Despite the poor audio, it’s a great set.
  • Rock Island Line/I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Living – In 1965 a Johnny Horton 45rpm was released (5 years after his death) with Rock Island Line (feat. Johnny Cash) as the b-side. Bear Records has since released a CD single that also features Horton singing his own A Fishin’ Man, and a second song with Cash, Hank Williams’ I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin’.  These seem to be home demos with Horton singing lead.  Available on Bear Records sets

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