When Johnny Cash committed to something, he committed to it wholeheartedly. He sang songs about the dispossessed and the downtrodden, seeing their inherent dignity and believing in their worth. He did this on all of his albums, instilling a depth of warmth and nuance with his phrasing and inimitable style, not caring what the heads of record companies said, knowing that whether or not he sold records, certain things just had to be said and sung about. He was not one to back down. A case in point is his approach to and making of the now rare and classic album: Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indians. Antonio D’Ambrosio (who also wrote a book about one of my favorite groups, The Clash, Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer) documents the making of Bitter Tears in A Heartbeat and a Guitar.
The songs on the album, while still stirring and powerful, may seem tame today, but when the album was proposed, Columbia didn’t want Cash to make it. Billboard refused to do a review of it, and radio stations refused to play the song “Ira Hayes,” about the Pima Indian (Native person, as they’re referred to in the book) who was one of the Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. He later took too much to drinking and society let him down, like it has with Native peoples in general. “Ballad of Ira Hayes” is an indictment against America’s mishandling of Indian affairs and the mistreatment Indians have suffered at the hands of white people who have been placed in positions of authority to deal with Indians and their land.
D’Ambrosio’s book really tells three tales: the story of Ira Hayes; the story of Peter LaFarge, an American Indian folksinger who wrote several of the songs on Bitter Tears, including “Ballad of Ira Hayes”; and one involving Johnny Cash and what led him to make Bitter Tears. Those three stories and the lives of Hayes, LaFarge, and Cash are interwoven throughout the book, and each individual story is fascinating in its own right. Also included is a brief history of the American Indian rights movement and how it relates to the overall Civil Rights movement that was sweeping throughout the U.S.
I was totally unfamiliar with Bitter Tears previous to reading A Heartbeat and a Guitar. I hadn’t heard a single song from it, so as I was reading, I listened to the album on YouTube. It’s a largely overlooked early gem from Cash, and I’m glad to have had the chance to read D’Ambrosio’s book and to have heard the album. In addition to “Ira Hayes,” another highlight of the album is the song “Apache Tears,” written about the legend of the tears of Apache women that turned into black, tear-shaped obsidian that is translucent if held up to the light in a certain way. The tears were cried after their men were slaughtered by American soldiers “in the last cavalry attack on Native people, which took place in Arizona.” Sadly, just as at Wounded Knee:
... the soldiers were ordered to leave the bodies of the Native people they slaughtered
on the ground. Then they rounded up the women, the children, and men who
couldn’t fight and marched them off to a train bound for a reservation. The
brutal ordeal was compounded by the soldiers’ refusal to allow the Apache
women to put the dead on stilts, an age-old sacred tradition of the tribe. Over-
come by grief, legend has it that for the first time ever, Apache women shed tears.
Leaving the men’s bodies on the ground, the women cried tears that fell to the
earth and turned black.
Cash was given an Apache tear by Ira Hayes’ mother; he “polished it, and mounted it on a gold chain, and kept it around his neck from that time forward.”
I really also liked the Bitter Tears songs “Drums” and “Old Apache Squaw.” Listening to the songs as I read made me want to also check on other Cash songs I hadn’t heard before or, like his awesome take on the Nine Inch Nails Song, “Hurt,” hadn’t listened to in a while (“Hurt” on YouTube has received over 33 million hits so far). Among the others I listened to and really enjoyed are “Personal Jesus,” “Pocahontas,” “Heart of Gold,” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” Most were recorded by Cash toward the end of his career and life, but each is extremely moving and powerful, and I probably wouldn’t have ever listened to them if I hadn’t read D’Ambrosio’s book.
A Heartbeat and a Guitar joins the already lengthy list of books written about Johnny Cash. It’s well worth the read, revealing a side of Cash that many people today know little about. His support and sympathy for the Indian cause shows through in every song on the album. If you’re not yet a fan, listen to the songs I mentioned, and you’ll become one - then read the book!