They walk the line

Mu­si­cians rein­ter­pret Johnny Cash’s land­mark al­bum Bit­ter Tears: Bal­lad of the Amer­i­can In­dian

SundayXtra - - FRONT PAGE - By Randy Lewis

ON the heels of two of the big­gest hits of his ca­reer in Ring of Fire and Un­der­stand Your Man, Johnny Cash was a hot com­mod­ity in 1964 when he gave his record com­pany an am­bi­tious new con­cept al­bum, Bit­ter Tears: Bal­lads of the Amer­i­can In­dian.

But the la­bel treated the al­bum more like a hot potato be­cause of its po­ten­tially con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject mat­ter, prompt­ing Cash to take mat­ters into his own hands to pro­mote a project he con­sis­tently cited as one of the proud­est mo­ments of his sto­ried ca­reer.

A half-cen­tury later, Bit­ter Tears is get­ting an­other shot at recog­ni­tion through Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bit­ter Tears Re­vis­ited, a new ver­sion recorded by a group of coun­try and Amer­i­cana stars. Re­leased Tues­day, the al­bum in­cludes per­for­mances by Cash’s friends Kris Kristof­fer­son and Em­my­lou Har­ris as well as singer-song­writ­ers Steve Earle, Gil­lian Welch and David Rawl­ings, abo­rig­i­nal mu­si­cian Bill Miller, Carolina Choco­late Drops singer Rhiannon Gid­dens and L.A.’s quirky duo Milk Car­ton Kids.

For pro­ducer and roots-mu­sic spe­cial­ist Joe Henry, Bit­ter Tears isn’t just a high-wa­ter mark in Amer­i­can pop­u­lar mu­sic, but one whose ex­plo­ration of the in­jus­tices suf­fered by abo­rig­i­nals for much of the past four cen­turies opened “a win­dow into a par­tic­u­lar part of our his­tory that re­mains open and un­re­solved.”

“You have to un­der­stand, Johnny Cash was my first con­scious mu­si­cal hero of my life­time,” Henry said. “My con­scious­ness of Johnny Cash, and my debt to him, is tremen­dous and far­reach­ing.”

As much as Henry ad­mired Cash, he ac­knowl­edged “I did not un­der­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of the line he drew with his own record la­bel and the mu­sic in­dus­try at large in 1964, when the record was re­leased.”

That refers to the strug­gle Cash had with Columbia Records ex­ec­u­tives to pro­mote Bit­ter Tears at a time when coun­try mu­sic — es­pe­cially coun­try ra­dio — had lit­tle in­ter­est in po­lit­i­cally con­scious mu­sic. Among the tough­est sells was The Bal­lad of Ira Hayes, song­writer Peter La Farge’s cas­ti­ga­tion of the dis­re­spect the abo­rig­i­nal Hayes re­ceived upon re­turn­ing home from serv­ing in the Sec­ond World War and be­ing part of the team that raised the Amer­i­can flag at Iwo Jima, Ja­pan.

“This is not some­thing the record com­pany wanted, be­cause the record com­pany wanted hits, and John wanted to make mu­sic that he felt mat­tered, es­pe­cially con­cept al­bums like Bit­ter Tears and Ride This Train,” said Robert Hil­burn, au­thor of the 2013 bi­og­ra­phy Johnny Cash: The Life and a for­mer pop mu­sic critic for the Times. “One of his great­est gifts was the way he em­pathized with peo­ple in need, es­pe­cially un­der­dogs, be­cause he had been an un­der­dog him­self, com­ing from a poor dirt farm in Arkansas,” Hil­burn said. “But that em­pa­thy stretched from con­victs — hence the Fol­som Prison al­bum — to strug­gling work­ers, to what he sensed was the great­est un­der­dog of all, the Na­tive Amer­i­can.

“He felt so strongly about the coun­try’s mis­treat­ment of Na­tive Amer­i­cans that he took out a full-page ad in Bill­board, the mu­sic trade pub­li­ca­tion, lash­ing out at pop and coun­try disc jock­eys for not play­ing the sin­gle The Bal­lad of Ira Hayes, Hil­burn added. Cash went a step fur­ther, pay­ing an in­de­pen­dent record-pro­mo­tion com­pany to push the sin­gle to those DJs (in­clud­ing a per­sonal note read­ing, “I re­ally need your help on this one, pal,” Hil­burn noted). The ef­forts paid off, and the song reached No. 3 on the Bill­board Coun­try Sin­gles chart in the sum­mer of ’64.

“John and I had the same so­cial con­science, I think,” Kristof­fer­son told the Times in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view. Kristof­fer­son per­forms The Bal­lad of Ira Hayes on the new ver­sion. “I always re­spected that song be­cause when he did it, it wasn’t so pop­u­lar,” Kristof­fer­son said. “But John always did what he thought was right, and I thought that was a pretty great way to go through life... John was one of the first celebri­ties who took up the Na­tive Amer­i­can cause. He had so much re­spect that I think it made a big im­pres­sion on peo­ple.”

It cer­tainly did on Miller, the three-time Grammy Award-win­ning Na­tive Amer­i­can singer and song­writer who per­forms the ti­tle track, the only song that did not ap­pear on the orig­i­nal al­bum, but was also writ­ten by La Farge, the New York folk artist who wrote the ma­jor­ity of the al­bum’s orig­i­nal songs.

Miller was nine when Bit­ter Tears was re­leased, but he vividly re­mem­bers its ef­fect on the Stock­bridge-Mun­see Mo­hi­can reser­va­tion where he grew up in Wis­con­sin.

“It was un­for­get­table,” he said. “In 1964, not only did I tune in Feb. 9 to watch the Bea­tles on Ed Sul­li­van, but that was the year my dad bought me Bit­ter Tears. So I’ve had that record since I was a lit­tle kid... When­ever we would get on buses and go off the reser­va­tion, there would be kids laugh­ing and call­ing you names. There was a lot of hard racial stuff go­ing on up there.

“So at the same time you’d hear peo­ple talk about the Bea­tles and the mu­sic rep­re­sent­ing their cul­ture, which I loved, we had this al­bum that spoke about our cul­ture,” Miller said. “I didn’t play it for ev­ery­body, but when I lis­tened to it I felt lifted, and so happy, be­cause I was such a Johnny Cash fan.”

For Cash, Bit­ter Tears wasn’t a nar­rowly fo­cused bro­mide against the un­fair treat­ment of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, but part of the broader po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion that was front and cen­tre in the 1960s.

“My fa­ther didn’t only have sym­pa­thy for the Na­tive Amer­i­cans’ plight and needs; he con­sid­ered him­self to be one of them,” said John Carter Cash, Cash’s son from his mar­riage to June Carter, re­fer­ring to his fa­ther’s be­lief at the time that he was part Chero­kee, which turned out not to be the case. “His heart never felt so deeply as when he recorded Bit­ter Tears, and no greater after­ward.”

Added pro­ducer Henry: “He was be­wil­dered why more peo­ple couldn’t con­nect the dots. He thought the civil rights move­ment was not strictly an African Amer­i­can is­sue, it’s a civil rights is­sue, and why aren’t we con­sid­er­ing this all un­der the same ban­ner?

“At the end of the day,” Henry said, “I would say my great hope is that peo­ple will not only be moved by the mu­sic as song, but that they will re­ally be re­minded that this is­sue is not an­cient his­tory. Things are not bet­ter now than they were 50 years ago for Na­tive Amer­i­cans.

“We’ve not made strides like we’ve made else­where, and we shouldn’t all be so OK with that. There’s a rel­e­vant and ac­tive con­ver­sa­tion that needs to be en­gaged.”

‘One of his great­est gifts was the way he em­pathized with peo­ple in need, es­pe­cially un­der­dogs, be­cause he had been an un­der­dog him­self, com­ing from a poor dirt farm in Arkansas’


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