Johnny Cash: The Man in Black’s ‘Bitter Tears’

By  Harvey Kubernik

(Don Hunstein/Courtesy SONY BMG MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT Archives)

(Don Hunstein/Courtesy SONY BMG MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT Archives)
“This book is a truly fascinating journey, charting the historical and social context of a courageous musical statement by one of our greatest voices. It has been locked away in the ‘denial drawer’ but D’Ambrosio admirably shines his investigative lantern into every darkened corner, finally offering some greatly appreciated illumination.”

— Jim Jarmusch  

“A Heartbeat And A Guitar: Johnny Cash And The Making Of Bitter Tears” is a truly absorbing book by author Antonino D’Ambrosio on Cash and the making of his seminal LP Bitter Tears (Ballads Of The American Indian), published in October 2009 by Nation Books.

The literary work features cover art by Shepard Fairey and 34 never-before-seen photographs from Jim Marshall and Diana Davies.

D’Ambrosio previously penned “Let Fury Have The Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer” and just directed a movie version slated for late 2009 viewing and planned 2010 theatrical distribution. His most recent film is “No Free Lunch,” starring comedian Lewis Black.

Chuck D of Public Enemy declares Brooklyn-based Antonino D’Ambrosio as “the voice of a new generation — passionate, intelligent and fierce — whose work educates and inspires. He now brings his unique voice to tell a unique story of Johnny Cash’s recording of the protest record Bitter Tears. It’s the album no one knows about but is perhaps Cash’s greatest record — and Antonino proves it.”

In his new examination of Johnny Cash and the Bitter Tears album, featuring the controversial Peter La Farge song “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes,” D’Ambrosio not only studies an overlooked and important Cash disc but in the process delivers a stirring portrait of an American force of nature.

D’Ambrosio sheds light on the forgotten history of Cash’s collaboration with La Farge, a little-known folk musician and songwriter, as well as providing insights into the plight of native people.

“The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” details the life of Hayes, the Pima Indian and U.S. Marine Corpsman who is one of the servicemen captured in the iconic photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising. Hayes would die in poverty on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Sacaton, Ariz. “Ira Hayes” and other selections reinforce the radical spirit of the Bitter Tears project.

Cash was born in Kingsland, Ark., Feb. 26, 1932. In July 1950, he enlisted in the Air Force when the United States was embroiled in the Korean conflict. Stationed in Germany, Johnny purchased his first guitar. During the four years he spent as a military cryptographer, Cash practiced the guitar while reading history books.

After debuting on Sun Records in 1955, Cash then inked a recording agreement with Columbia Records in 1958.   

Cash’s physical and geographical relationship to Southern California, Los Angeles and Hollywood in particular has been somewhat neglected in our revisionist media when Cash’s career is chronicled.  

Cash spent large portions of a decade of his life, after leaving Sun Records, doing his first gospel LP when he was signed to Columbia Records, after first splitting from Memphis to Ventura County.

On Aug. 13, 1957, at a party in California, Cash first met British-born record producer Don Law after a local television appearance first touted Cash’s joining Columbia Records after Cash’s contract with Sun ended on August 1, 1958.

In August 1958, Cash and clan moved to California, and he rented an apartment on Coldwater Canyon Avenue in North Hollywood. Later that year, Cash and his family bought a ranch house from comedian/TV host Johnny Carson on Havenhurst Avenue in Encino in the San Fernando Valley.

Johnny Cash Enterprises was once located on Sunset Boulevard at the Crossroads of the World complex in Hollywood.     

Johnny did his first real movie work out in Southern California and countless television appearances in the area over the decades, including the L.A.-based “Town Hall Party” program in 1960. Johnny even did an autograph signing in 1961 at Pal Records in Topanga. 

Hollywood and Los Angeles informed Cash’s art more than most folks want to admit. Cash’s regional ties with California continued for decades, culminating in his acclaimed Rick Rubin-produced recordings, including “Hurt.”

When Cash died in 2003, writer Todd Everett told me about a 1963 Ventura College benefit Cash did for the police department, “’cause Johnny was always getting in trouble in an area between Ventura County and Ojai, Calif. His young girls with his first wife Vivian (Liberto) grew up there. And Cash purchased his father a trailer home. And if that ain’t country you can kiss my ass.”

Riverside, Calif.,-raised Barbara Mandrell has another local anecdote about Cash. Barbara told CNN TV interviewer Larry King that Cash saw her in 1960 when she was age 13 on “Town Hall Party,” which was filmed near downtown Los Angeles. Catching that TV slot, Johnny and his manager were impressed and gave her her first out-of-state tour on a package that included Patsy Cline in 1962.

There is also Condors’ founder and guitarist Pat diPuccio, a.k.a. Pooch of Flipside Magazine fame. He fondly remembers a personal Cash event from 1966, providing an anecdote that further sheds light on Johnny’s deep societal bond with his fans.

Around 1966, he went to see Cash play a show with Tex Ritter at the Ventura Theater.

“After the theater show, Johnny was scheduled to play a set of religious songs at a local church with the Carter Family and the Statler Brothers,” recalls di Puccio. “The trek from Los Angeles to Ventura was quite a long one, so I kept falling asleep during the program.

“Afterwards, Johnny had asked my big brother if he and I would like to go back to his house for doughnuts, a very cool gesture. Unfortunately, my big brother had to get me back home, as it was a school night. I always remember that, even when Johnny was a celebrity, he still found time to connect with his fans. Of course, I do wish I’d have been able to take him up on his late-night offer.”

Cash always insisted he was part Cherokee and evidence supports his claim. In 1968 Cash toured Wounded Knee, S.D., with descendents of the survivors of the 1890 massacre and played songs from Bitter Tears at a benefit performance at Cemetery Hill for the tribe. Cash offered thoughts and solutions on native people’s problems and helped the Sioux raise money for schools.

Before A Man In Black and his epic Live From Folsom Prison, Cash recorded what should have been a career-defining album in Bitter Tears, waxed in collaboration with La Farge. The LP is a somber outing that identified Cash as an advocate for human rights and social justice. The original album pressing is a collection of recordings, musical storytelling and social consciousness recorded in Nashville, Tenn., with record producers Don Law and Frank Jones. It is anchored and grounded by La Farge’s material like “Ira Hayes,” “Custer” and “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow” (composed with Cash). Guitarist Norman Blake was included in the sessions.

This Cash LP, cut in 1964, his 19th album, should have cemented Cash’s reputation as a social activist. However, the audio venture immediately fell into obscurity. Deemed “un-American” and incendiary, the album was banned, censored and erased from the airwaves. Country-music purists even rejected the LP.

Cash’s passionate and empathetic album had all but disappeared from the airwaves, record stores and retail outlets. Months before, Johnny had been riding high on the success of “Ring of Fire,” but when Bitter Tears was issued, Cash found himself in the middle of a controversy that threatened his career. It inspired a backlash of overwhelming proportions that included hateful protests.

Columbia Records pulled all advertising. Cash, now somewhat abandoned by Columbia and without the support of the global music community, took matters into his own hands.

Billboard had earlier also refused to review Bitter Tears, so Johnny paid for his own full-page advertisement in the magazine. It was a letter to the music business and radio stations, and in the ad, Cash asks, “I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of ‘Ira Hayes.’ Just one question: ‘Why?’” 

Cash and his pal, guitarist, singer and live-show emcee Johnny Western, along with Pat Shields, a PR guy doing promotions for Liberty Records, had a company called Great Western Enterprises on Western Avenue in Hollywood.

Johnny and the duo sent out letters and copies of “Ira Hayes,” after Cash purchased a thousand of them from Columbia and sent the entire batch to every radio station in the country. It broke into the Billboard Top Ten in December 1964.

During ’64, Cash incorporated “Ira Hayes” as the closing number of his Newport Folk Festival appearance, following “I Walk The Line” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in his set.   

“The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” is included on 40 Cash re-releases and compilations and has been covered by Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Hazel Dickens, Kinky Friedman, Charley Pride and Patrick Sky. Bob Dylan did a rendition during sessions for New Morning that surfaced on the 1973 Dylan album.

In January 2009, The Nation magazine picked “Ballad Of Ira Hayes” as one of the 10 best progressive anthems of all time. On his own “Johnny Cash Show” that aired on ABC-TV from the 1969-1971, Cash booked former House Un-American Activities Committee blacklist victim Pete Seeger, who sang the anti-war song “Big Muddy,” and musician/songwriter Buffy Saint-Marie, a full-blood native person, who covered La Farge’s “Custer” on the show.

“One reason country music has expanded the way it has is that we haven’t let ourselves become locked into any category. We do what we feel,” Cash explained to me in a 1975 interview we did when he was staying in Orange County.

Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian) is now a tiny footnote on Cash’s biography. The original album was reissued as an expanded-edition import in 1984 from the German Bear Family Records label. In fact, Cash composed “Big Foot” after his experience at Wounded Knee. When Bitter Tears was scheduled for re-release, the song was added to the lineup.     

In the late ’80s, Steve Popovich, who had formerly worked for Columbia Records since 1962 and was an advocate of Cash during his label tenure, became vice president of marketing for Polygram Records and brought Cash to Polygram. 

“A Heartbeat And A Guitar” is the story of Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian). The subsequent print journey has D’Ambrosio recounting the album’s creation and delineates the influence of Bitter Tears on the Native People’s rights movement, the legacy of Peter La Farge and the actual story of Ira Hayes.

D’Ambrosio’s effort also illustrates the enduring and endearing friendships between Cash and LaFarge, Seeger, record producer Bob Johnson and Dylan. In my 1975 Melody Maker interview with Cash conducted in Anaheim, Calif., and later excerpted by author Robert Shelton in his “No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan,” I asked Cash about Dylan.

“I became aware of Bob Dylan when the Freewheelin’ album came out in 1963,” said Cash. “I thought he was one of the best country singers I had ever heard. I always felt a lot in common with him. I knew a lot about him before we had ever met. I knew he had heard and listened to country music. I heard a lot of inflections from country artists I was familiar with. I was in Las Vegas in ’63 and ’64 and wrote him a letter telling him how much I liked his work. I got a letter back and we developed a correspondence.”

Cash continues, “We finally met at Newport in 1965. It was like we were two old friends There was none of this standing back trying to figure each other out. He’s unique and original. I keep lookin’ around as we pass the middle of the ’70s, and I don’t see anybody come close to Bob Dylan. I respect him. Dylan is a few years younger than I am, but we share a bond that hasn’t diminished. I get inspiration from him.”

As a teenager, Dylan once hitchhiked from Hibbing, Minn., to Duluth to see Cash and the Tennessee Two (Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins) at the Duluth Amphitheater.

Johnny Western reveals to Antonino D’Ambrosio in an interview witnessing a Dylan and Cash exchange where Dylan proclaims, “Man, I didn’t just dig you; I breathed you.”

Apparently Cash stuck his head inside the Columbia Records studio when talent scout/A&R man John Hammond was producing Dylan’s debut record, Bob Dylan.

Dylan was also grateful that Cash would constantly endorse his talents to skeptical Columbia executives after weak initial sales of his first LP, some calling it “Hammond’s folly,” a jab at Hammond, who signed Dylan to the label after Peter La Farge.

It is no surprise that Johnny and June Carter Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, a music producer and an executive producer on the “I Walk The Line” bio-pic, told an amusing story describing Dylan’s initial encounter with his dad for the first time in the Dec. 2, 2005 issue of USA Weekend: “Dad would chuckle when he’d tell me how Bob Dylan acted like a silly kid when they first met. He burst into dad’s hotel room and began jumping on the bed, shouting, ‘I met Johnny Cash! I finally met Johnny Cash!”

And with Bitter Tears, Cash introduced the world to another side of himself.

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