Monday, October 13, 2014

bitter tears: ballads of the american indian

Johnny Cash put it all on the line with this socially conscious concept album that spoke from the perspective of Native Americans.  The success of number one country singles like 'Ring of Fire' and 'Understand Your Man', Cash was in a position to make the topical 'Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian'.  The sessions were produced by Don Law and Frank Jones and featured Johnny Cash on vocals and guitar;  with Luther Perkins, Norman Blake, and Bob Johnson on guitar;  Marshall Grant on bass;  W.S. Holland on drums;  and vocal accompaniment by The Carter Family.  

For the album, Cash recorded five songs from the songbook of Pima-Indian and Korean War veteran, Peter LaFarge. LaFarge died the same month that the album was released on October 27, 1964, making the album seem like a tribute.  The songs tell true stories of broken treaties, re-education, and brutal discrimination; not an easy sell for Colombia Records.  When they refused to promote the single "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", Cash took out a full page ad in Billboard criticizing the DJ's for not playing the song.  He also paid an independent promotional firm to push the single to the radio stations.  The result was that the song went to number three on the US country singles chart.  

Cash would reveal:   "I read a book when I was about 12 years old about an Indian named Lone Bull. Lone Bull had tried to go out and kill a buffalo. He slipped out of the village, against his father's wishes and went out. He was going to be a hero and kill a buffalo and bring it back to the village, so his family and the other people could have meat. And the elders of the village knew about the buffalo herd. They knew it was there, and they were making plans to cut into the heard and cut off some buffalo and kill them and have meat for the whole winter and into the next spring. Lone Bull wanted to be a hero. He went out with his bow and arrow and killed a calf, and ran the herd off into the next state. He drug this calf home, his family was fed, but they were ostracized from the village. They had to leave the village. Lone Bull became a wanderer, until he found a village that would take him in. In that next village where he was taken in, he organized the buffalo hunt that winter, and they had more meat than this village had ever had before. So, I learn from my mistakes. It's a very painful way to learn, but without pain, the old saying is, there's no gain. I found that to be true in my life. You miss a lot of opportunities by making mistakes, but that's part of it: is knowing that you're not shut out forever, and that there's a goal there that you still can reach. Lone Bull's philosophy was, "I'm kicked out of this village, but I will grow up and I'll come into another one and I will do what I set out to do, that was feed the people." So I'm feeding my people right now...You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space. If you analyze it as you're moving forward, you'll never fall in the same trap twice, which I can't say that I haven't been guilty of doing. But my advice is, if they're going to break your legs once when you go in that place, stay out of there." 

 'Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian' went to number forty-seven on the US album chart and number two on the US country album chart.

"As Long as the Grass Shall Grow"

"Apache Tears"


"The Talking Leaves"

"The Ballad of Ira Hayes"


 'Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian'
full album:

1. "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow"   Peter La Farge 6:10
2. "Apache Tears"   Cash 2:34
3. "Custer"   La Farge 2:20
4. "The Talking Leaves"   Cash 3:55
5. "The Ballad of Ira Hayes"   La Farge 4:07
6. "Drums"   La Farge 5:04
7. "White Girl"   La Farge 3:01
8. "The Vanishing Race"   Cash, Johnny Horton 4:02

For As Long As The Grass Grows

Individuality is a prerequisite for an Artist! Johnny Cash is singular in his individuality. There is no artist on the American scene quite like this ex- farm boy from Arkansas.

One of the most striking things about Johnny's writings and performance is his perceptiveness. His insight into the deep feelings of his fellows is startling. His few years rule out his having "lived" all he sings of and writes about so well. One must conclude that Johnny is gifted with a perception that allows him to express, so that others understand, that which we do not see before. His quite unorthodox broach to the literature of song has brought home, with great impact, many things we have not taken the time to consider. This album contains an abundance of such literature.

We, as Americans have many things of which we can be proud. But we, alas have some things in our history that we must wear as millstones of shame. One of the least discussed is the manner in which we have treated the Indians. These people of many languages and cultures, preceded us on this continent by more than ten thousand years. At some distant date they followed mammoths and giant prehistoric game over a now vanished land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and tracked them over the Western Hemisphere, moving in wave after wave, spreading and changing. The Indians of the Great Plains continued to be nomadic hunters. Others settled in the Southwest to plant crops and build great cliff dwellings and adobe pueblos. The Indians built their richest and most complex cultures in the Midwest and East and South. Some Indians built large fortified towns with temples and streets and pyramid-like buildings that , only recently, have been unearthed.

Our white ancestors looked upon the Indian as a lesser being. Language barriers hid the culture of the race and the dignity of the individual. The white man's greed for land and fur and gold blinded him to the indignities he was forcing on another of the human kind. The knowledge and energy that our forefathers brought from Europe propelled the white man with a force and speed that put fear in the heart and mind of the leisurely-paced Indian. And with fear comes misunderstanding.

We have spent three hundred years "misunderstanding" the Indian. He has spent three hundred years with fewer lands, less game, broken promises and more broken promises . . . All of the aforementioned mean death ... for the Indian. First, families died. Then tribes and now we are faced with whole cultures dying away. We have made promises, only to break them. We have signed treaties, only to have them become "white leaves that blow away in the wind." True, the Indian fought and killed white men, but we fail to remember that we, the white men, were the invaders. The Indian was defending that which had been his for thousands of years. We are still displacing the American Indian. This year (Note, early 1960's) hundred of families are being moved from a New York State Reservation granted them in a treaty signed by George Washington, to make way for a dam. We are still the invader.

The contents of this album is the Indian's side of the story. The songs, written by Peter LaFarge and Johnny Cash, view some of the problems cited here from the Indian's viewpoint. Listen well to these words. They are the thoughts and feeling of a people who deem Custer's Last Stand not a massacre but an Indian Victory over a foe who had broken a promise. Hear the words well and you will discern that simply because we are white , that does not make us pure.

Johnny Cash sings well these tales of the Indian's woe. His facility for perception and insight lends validity to these tales of anguish. Johnny is justified in the stand he takes. Johnny Cash is proud of his Cherokee Blood.

Hugh Cherry

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