Another collection of Johnny Cash-inspired music will soon be available for purchase, according to Billboard. Joe Henry (Rodney Crowell, Carolina Chocolate Drops - is an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and Grammy award winning producer. He has released 12 studio albums and produced multiple recordings for other artists) has signed on to produce a multi-artist project for Sony Masterworks re-creating Cash’s controversial 1964 album Bitter Tears, a conceptual collection that addresses the plight of Native Americans.
“It was much-maligned when it came out,” Henry says. “There was a very public battle with Columbia Records about the release of the record, and subsequently it was not very well promoted or very widely heard.” Henry plans to use a small group of artists on the project, but none have been announced yet. Plans are set for recording to begin the project in late January/early February, 2014 in Nashville and California.
The story behind Johnny Cash’s ‘Bitter Tears’
In July 1972, musician Johnny Cash visited President Richard Nixon in the White House’s Blue Room. The country music superstar had come to discuss prison reform with the self-anointed leader of America’s “silent majority.” Nixon asked Cash if he would play a few songs for him. Nixon explained “I like Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie from Muskogee’ and Guy Drake’s ‘Welfare Cadillac,’” two famous expressions of white working-class resentment. With hordes of media reporting the visit and waiting in the wings, it was clear that this was a part of Richard Nixon’s GOP’s (Republican) Southern strategy. With the nation still immersed in Vietnam, Cash had far more than prison reform on his mind.
“I don’t know those songs,” replied Cash, “but I got a few of my own I can play for you.” Little did Nixon know that he would meet the real Johnny Cash, an American protest singer as much as a country music legend.. Cash, with his usual jet black hair and black suit, draped the strap of his Martin guitar over his right shoulder and played three songs, all of them decidedly to the left of “Okie from Muskogee.” Nixon listened with a frozen smile to the singer’s rendition of the explicitly antiwar “What Is Truth?” and “Man in Black” (“Each week we lose a hundred fine young men”) and a folk protest song about the plight of Native Americans called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Not only was this a daring confrontation with a president that Cash’s fans liked, but it was how Cash saw himself — a foe of hypocrisy, an ally of the downtrodden.
Johnny Cash's album "Bitter Tears" and the first track truest to his vision,“The Ballad of Ira Hayes” was based on the tragic tale of Ira Hayes, (aka Chief Falling Cloud) the Pima Indian war hero immortalized in the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, and in Washington’s Iwo Jima monument, but who died a lonely death brought on by severe depression and alcoholism. Raised in rural poverty on the margins of America, Cash empathized with outsiders like convicts, the poor and Native Americans. Native Americans like Ira Hayes. Both men had served in the military as a way to escape their lives of rural poverty longing to create new opportunities. Plus, both suffered from addiction problems; Cash and his pills and Hayes with alcohol. He decided to anchor the album with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Peter La Farge and the song had provided the spark for Cash’s vision.
In fact, Cash had written an Indian folk protest ballad of his own in 1957. “I wrote ‘Old Apache Squaw’… Then I forgot the so-called protest song for a while. No one else seemed to speak up for the Indian with any volume or voice until Peter La Farge.” Johnny had watched Peter perform “The Ballad of Ira Hayes and many other American Indian protest songs. Cash had educated himself about Native American issues. “John had really researched a lot of the history,” Cash’s longtime emcee Johnny Western recalled. “It started with Ira Hayes.” As Cash explained, “…I immersed myself in the tragic stories of the Cherokee and the Apache, among others, until I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage.”
In the '60s, social movements were blossoming with “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall All Be Free” drowning out the cry of the loose-knit Native movement and the rising tide of Native youth activists wanted something different. But it was not so much to mesh into the American system, Native American activists wanted to maintain their slipping grip on sovereignty and the little land they still possessed. By the early ’60s, the burgeoning National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) was attempting to stake its own claim for their equal share of justice as the U.S. government was changing and not fulfilling treaty law agreements.
In 1964, after finishing the biggest chart success of his career, the single “Ring of Fire,” and having just finished recording a very commercial album called “I Walk the Line,” began recording another, very different album. He was alternating folksy albums like “Blood Sweat and Tears,” a celebration of the working man, with commercial discs laden with radio-ready singles. Columbia Records, with Johnny’s “Ring of Fire,” reaching No. 1 on the country charts and crossing over into pop, didn’t hesitate to allow Cash to make an album of what he called “Indian protest songs.” And, there was Johnny’s special song and brotherhood with “Ira Hayes.”
Johnny Cash contacted Ira Hayes’ mother and then visiting her and her family at the Pima reservation in Arizona. Before he left the Pima Reservation, Hayes’ mother presented him with a smooth black translucent stone as a gift. The Pima call it an “Apache tear.” The legend behind the opaque volcanic black glass is rooted in the last U.S. cavalry attack on Native people, which took place on Apaches in the state of Arizona. After the slaughter, the soldiers refused to allow the Apache women to put the dead up on stilts, a sacred Apache tradition. Legend says that overcome by intense grief, Apache women shed tears for the first time ever, and the tears that fell to the earth turned black. Cash, moved by the gift, polished the stone and mounted it on a gold chain. It seemed to strengthen his resolve and passion for being a force to be reckoned with in protest of the American Indians treatment even more.
Cash cut his protest album with the Apache tear draped around his neck. He recorded five of La Farge’s songs, two of his own, one he’d co-written with Johnny Horton, and all Native American themed. The album, aptly named “Bitter Tears," surprisingly hit the proverbial music industry brick wall. The stations wouldn’t play the album’s first single, “Ira Hayes” and Columbia Records refused to promote it. According to John Hammond, the legendary producer and Cash champion who worked at Columbia said “Executives at the label just didn’t think it had commercial potential. Billboard, the music industry trade magazine, wouldn’t review it, even though Cash was at the height of his fame, scoring the No. 1 country single with “Understand Your Man” and No. 1 country album with “I Walk the Line.”
One editor of a country music magazine even demanded that Cash resign from the Country Music Association because “you and your crowd are just too intelligent to associate with plain country folks, country artists and country DJs.” The next strike at Johnny and the album, is reported by Johnny Western, a DJ, singer and actor who for many years was part of Cash’s road show, recalls a conversation with “a very popular and powerful DJ.” According to Western, the DJ was “connected to many of the music associations and other influential recording industry groups. He had always been incredibly supportive of John.” Western and the DJ started discussing Cash’s new album and the “Ira Hayes” single. “He asked me why John did this record. I told him that John and all of us had a great feeling for the American Indian cause. He responded that he felt that the music, in his mind, was un-American and that he would never play the record on air and had strongly advised other DJs and radio stations to do the same. Just ignore it until John came back to his senses, is what he told me.”
When “Bitter Tears” and its single did not get the attention he felt it deserved, Cash had the last word. So, on Aug. 22, 1964, Johnny protested in a way only he would do. He composed a letter to the entire record industry and placed it in Billboard as a full-page ad.
“D.J.’s — station managers — owners, etc.,” demanded Cash, “Where are your guts?” He referred to his own supposed half Cherokee and Mohawk heritage and spoke of the record as unvarnished truth. “These lyrics take us back to the truth … you’re right! Teenage girls and Beatle record buyers don’t want to hear this sad story of Ira Hayes … This song is not of an unsung hero.” Cash slammed the record industry for its cowardice, “Regardless of the trade charts — the categorizing, classifying and restrictions of air play, this not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason though for the gutless [Cash's emphasis] to give it a thumbs down.”
Cash demanded that the industry explain its resistance to his single. “I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of Ira Hayes. Just one question: WHY???” And then Cash answered for them. “‘Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine … So is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam.”
In reality, however, as Cash noted in his letter, “Ira Hayes” was already outselling many country hits, ultimately, thanks in part to aggressive promotion by Cash, who personally promoted the song to disc jockeys he knew. “Ira Hayes” reached No. 3 on the country singles charts, and “Bitter Tears” peaked at 2 on the album charts.
Later, long after “Bitter Tears,” and after he’d won his battle with drugs, Cash never wavered from his support for the Native cause. He went on to perform benefit shows on reservations — including the Sioux reservation at Wounded Knee in 1968, five years before the armed standoff there between the FBI and the American Indian Movement — to help raise money for schools, hospitals and other critical resources denied by the government. In 1980, Cash told a reporter: “We went to Wounded Knee before Wounded Knee II [the 1973 standoff] to do a show to raise money to build a school on the Rosebud Indian Reservation” and do a movie for “Public Broadcasting System called ‘Trail of Tears.’” He joined with fellow musicians Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Robbie Robertson to call for the release of jailed (American Indian Movement) AIM leader Leonard Peltier.
Since Cash first recorded “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” in 1964, many musicians have recorded their own versions. Kris Kristofferson is one of those musicians. He summed up the spirit behind Cash’s now nearly forgotten protest album in his eulogy for Cash, who died in 2003. Cash, he said, was a “holy terror … a dark and dangerous force of nature that also stood for mercy and justice for his fellow human beings.”
Johnny Cash would always cherish that album. “I’m still particularly proud of ‘Bitter Tears,’” Cash would say near the end of his life, while talking about the topical music he recorded in the 1960s. “Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position today. The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making any moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Has Johnny now touched Joe Henry to inspire this re-recording and remake of Johnny’s “Bitter Tears,” an American Indian’s prayer, Johnny working from above to make things right and hold light to the darkness? Probably all of the above. And, to that, we say, Godspeed, Mr. Joe Henry. It’s time for those “Bitter Tears” to be remembered and released to educate, inspire and instill advocacy in human rights issues to a new generation.
Joe Henry holds very prestigious awards such as Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album, Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album, Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.