A frank talk about ‘Bitter Tears’

By Harvey Kubernik

You first discovered the Bitter Tears album in 2005. And consequently this lead to the writing of the Johnny Cash book.

Antonino D’Ambrosio: It was a conflation of things. He looked so different on the cover of the record. I saw the letter he wrote to radio stations inside this Bear Family Records 1984 reissue; it was so cinematic in many ways. The letter was filled with just this fierceness and spirit. Also, it’s scathing. I was so moved. Those two things, initially, when I put the record on had already filled my heart in such a way that I was gonna hear it in this completely unique way, compared to anything I had heard from Cash before.

I’m learning about the record that was made in 1964, and it’s shocking to me. That this record even happened in 1964, let alone could have happened in ’68 or ’76. The reason I feel that way is it matches, in the spirit, something very similar to what The Clash were doing in the late ’70s, even what Public Enemy was doing in the mid- to late-’80s. It was so direct and intense in its purpose and I really, really respected that. And I felt that there was something here that was really a truer portrait of him as a person — a citizen living in the world, in terms of how he saw himself and what he was trying to do.

The album was ignored, and the single “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” initially was ignored. Johnny Cash was sincere and had no idea there would be a backlash against it. It was authentic and not a pose. That was one of the reasons he joined Columbia Records after Sun fought him all the way through about doing these concept records, these Americana records. The only reason he was about to do the Bitter Tears album was because he had just had the monster hit “Ring of Fire.” It gave him coverage.

What is your feeling about the book and album pairing? Johnny Cash used his art in achieving, I think, the most powerful thing art can achieve, which is telling the truth. And that is what moved me, and I think that is what moved Cash.

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Here’s a story about this guy who is a war hero and is immortalized. His hands were the hands holding the flag in the flag-raising Iwo Jima photo. He’s asked to come back, then [was] paraded around the country and he dies this really terrible death. When you learn about the history of the Pima Indians — which [Hayes] was — and the fact that they had been these amazing engineers and created the most sophisticated irrigation system that [would] last a few thousands years and then the Army Corps Of Engineers came in the late 1800s and destroyed it. They were dying of thirst, because their land, which they had lived off in harmony with their river, was depleted. It dried up. And Ira Hayes died in shallow waters, drunk.

We tend to look and remember Cash’s 1968 California live recorded albums as San Quentin and Folsom Prison, and yet Bitter Tears was four years earlier. It’s four years before The American Indian Movement. And it’s right at the beginning of the escalation of the Vietnam War in ’64. And Johnny Cash was in the Army, and Ira Hayes was one of the first paratroopers, an amazing soldier. And Peter La Farge, who wrote the song, was in the Navy and they were all badly, in their own way, scarred by war.

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Numerous musicians have done versions of “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes.”The interesting thing is that Bob Dylan said that he believed that Peter La Farge was the best of the protest balladeers, the folk singers. In the book I kind of paint these trios, and one of these trios is Dylan, La Farge and Cash, who were all creative and all had dark sides. Which probably fed their creativity, you know.

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Dylan was deeply moved by the songwriting. The reality is that La Farge may have not been the greatest musician, but he really was an inheritor to the songwriting style of someone like (Woody) Guthrie or The Carter Family. And certainly in what Dylan was doing.


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