Johnny Cash, Bitter Tears and Human Rights

First off, in my un-humble opinion, Johnny Cash was one of the most important and authentic of American artists. He’s up there with such folk, country and blues legends as Leadbelly, Jimmie Rogers, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Bessie Smith and Hank Williams. Last night, I watched a documentary, Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears, based on the book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears by Antonino D’Ambrosio, and learned more about Johnny Cash and about two albums I had not heard of before.

bittertearsThe first is Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, a concept album Johnny recorded in 1964 about the plight of Native Americans. Johnny wrote two of the songs, co-wrote another with Johnny Horton (Battle of New Orleans fame) but most of the tracks were written by folksinger Peter La Farge.

It is tempting to think of Johnny Cash as just a country music artist who used to hang out with cool people like Bob Dylan, but he was much more – a true original, an innovator and trailblazer. It’s also tempting to think that the concept album was an invention of the rock era, pioneered by the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper), The Who (The Who Sell Out) and others. However, when Bitter Tears was released in 1964, Johnny had already recorded two concept albums: Ride This Train (1960) and Blood Sweat and Tears (1963). Perhaps the only artist to beat him to the punch in the area of concept albums was Frank Sinatra.

The reaction to Bitter Tears back then was so hostile, and Johnny was so disappointed by the criticism he received, that he took out a full page ‘ad’ in Billboard magazine where he did not mince any of his words to music industry execs, critics, and DJ’s:

This ad, go ahead and call it that, cost like hell. Would you or those pulling the strings for you, go to the mic with the new approach? That is, listen again to the record? Yes, I cut records to try for sales. Another word we could use is success. Regardless of the trade charts, the categorizing, classifying, and the restrictions of airplay, this is not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason, though, for the gutless to give it thumbs down.”

The second album I learned about is a 2014 re-recording, Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, featuring Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Milk Carton Kids, and Kris Kristofferson, among others.

Like Joe Henry, the producer of the tribute LP, I was familiar with Johnny Cash’s song The Ballad of Ira Hayes, that tells the story of Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Pima Indian and a United States Marine who was one of the six soldiers captured in the famous photograph of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. Ira Hayes died of drunk and suffering from acute alcoholism in a field on the Pima reservation on a cold January night in 1955. However, I was only vaguely aware of the 1964 concept album and knew nothing of the story behind it.

In the documentary, Joe Henry says,

At that moment, in 1964, the Civil Rights act had just been signed, and he [Cash] didn’t understand why people didn’t equate what was happening with Native Americans with what was happening in this country to African Americans. His point of view was that this is the same issue. This is human rights.”

Wednesday, Amnesty International released their annual State of the World report for 2014/2015 in which they state that International protection of human rights is in danger of unravelling as short-term national self-interest and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, adds

Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world. Millions of people are suffering enormously at the hands of states and armed groups, while governments are shamelessly painting the protection of human rights as a threat to security, law and order or national ‘values.'”

Our challenge globally and locally is to protect human rights in the future and to heal from the abuses of the past.  I don’t know if Johnny Cash thought of it in terms of ‘healing,’ but that was probably his general idea.

Sometimes his recordings are so spare in style and instrumentation that the only thing you have to hold on to his magnificent voice and the words. I don’t think Johnny is remembered as an especially gifted songwriter, but he wrote what I feel is one of the most simple and beautiful songs of all time, I Still Miss Someone, and read these lyrics from his Apache Tears:

The victor and the loser came by here
No head stones, but these bones bring the mascalero death moans
See the smooth black nuggets by the thousands lying here
Petrified, but justified are these apache tears

In Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears, currently showing on PBS stations, Native American singer and composer, sums it all up very well:

How do we actually deal with our situations right now . . . How do we heal that? How do we say, okay, let’s become whole again? And that’s what makes this land sacred . . . How do we change the hearts and minds and souls of those who are going to come after us? It begins with the thought.”

A Johnny Cash poster I made a few years ago: