Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: Johnny Cash
Well, I had to work last Friday so I couldn’t wear black in honor of Johnny Cash. Guess I could have posted this on that day, but to be honest I didn’t think to do this until now. So today we’re listening to Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, a 1964 concept album by the Man in Black.
It would probably be safe to say that nobody really did concept albums back in ’64. The only reason this album came about was because Cash scored a huge hit with “Ring of Fire” in 1963 (seven weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts). Cash wanted to follow that up with a protest album focusing on the problems of American Indians – Columbia, his record label, had no choice but to allow Cash to do it.
Cash always claimed he was part Cherokee, so he took this stuff pretty seriously. Bitter Tears has only eight songs, written partly by Cash or by folksinger Peter LaFarge. “The Vanishing Race,” the final song on the album, was co-written by Cash and Johnny Horton (“Battle of New Orleans”). The opener, LaFarge’s “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow,” talks about how the Seneca nation lost a lot of its land when a dam was built in Pennsylvania. Cash would revisit this song years later during his American Recordings period; he re-cut it and changed the lyrics, and it appeared on the box set Unearthed.
The best-known song on Bitter Tears is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a true tale about Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American who was one of the five U.S. Marines pictured raising the flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. After the war, Hayes came back to the States as a celebrity but that lifestyle never sat well with him – he eventually died as a broke alcoholic. “Ballad,” written by LaFarge, tells his story powerfully, and the song was turned into a single that eventually hit No. 3 on the country charts. Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman, among others, would record versions of the song in later years.
Truth to tell, Cash’s songs on Bitter Tears may not be as good as LaFarge’s songs. “Apache Tears” tells its story over some familiar Johnny Cash chord changes, the lyrics are hard-hitting but a little heavy handed too. Aside from its subject matter, the album was a departure in that it subdued the sound of Cash’s great band (W.S. Holland on drums, Marshall Grant on bass and the great Luther Perkins on guitar), but the familiar thump turns up on “Custer.”
Naturally Bitter Tears wasn’t a hit. Maybe that was due to its subject, maybe Cash’s star was fading a bit (the pop charts were suddenly “invaded” by these weird longhairs from Liverpool). But it remains as just another tribute to the great vision of Johnny Cash, and a powerful example of his ambition to use his fame to stand up for the underdog against all odds.