I have to make a bit of a confession about this particular entry. Though this album is one of Johnny Cash’s best and most important, I actually forgot up until recently that I hadn’t already written about it, but in listening to and studying this album further, I’m even more aware of its importance in Cash’s catalogue, and how it represents something I hadn’t touched on much with Cash, and that’s his Indian roots, as told in his 1964 album Bitter Tears:
When it came to his ancestry, being part Irish and part Cherokee Indian was such an important thing to Johnny Cash that it colored his songwriting all throughout his career. Thus, it was equally important, in the first few paragraphs of his second autobiography (entitled “Cash“), to share his recent findings regarding his true ancestry. As it turns out, Johnny Cash’s ancestry was almost 100% Scottish, and could be traced back to the 11th century. Still, despite the truth about where Cash came from, it didn’t change where he had been, and one of those places was among his Native American brothers at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. There, in 1968, he performed songs from this album for a crowd of the people he was speaking for, and made a comment that I always liked, “I’ve got very little Indian blood in me, except in my heart, I’ve got 100%”.
It’s interesting that this album, which to my knowledge is the first (possibly only) “Country” album by a white guy that was fully dedicated to the trials and tribulations of the Native Americans came at the time it did. The period of the mid-60′s, in America’s history, was marked by protests, division, riots, and lots and lots of folk music. It’s interesting to me that Cash didn’t do an album about civil rights or anything like that directly, instead choosing to put a spotlight on a history of genocide and rape and pillage that most people aren’t even aware of to this day.
To hear Bitter Tears is to hear the dark, austere, and almost vengeful side of Johnny Cash as he passionately speaks out in that deep voice of his about the destruction of the Seneca nation in Pennsylvania in the song “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow”, and the spite in his voice as he cackles at the defeat of General Custer in the song “Custer”. The popular “Boom Chicka Boom” sound of Cash’s albums up to this point is almost entirely missing in all but two songs (“Custer” and “White Girl”), replaced with a somber acoustic guitar and light percussion, with Cash being joined by The Carter Family on many tracks. In this way, the album lacks the fun of most of his other albums up to this point, so the thing was kind of a shock to the Country radio guys. In fact, a lot of stations refused to play the singles from this particular album, which caused Cash to throw the accusation that they “wallow in meaninglessness”, which is kind of a strange phrase when one considers the radio of today for which such a statement is one of the obvious. Really though, I can’t exactly side with Cash for blaming the radio for not playing songs from this album; the songs are just too dark for Country radio, and they only really work well in the context of this album.
The meaning behind Bitter Tears is actually two-fold. Cash was speaking the truth, as best as he could manage, with his songs about the horrible treatment of the American Indian, but on a larger scale, he was speaking to the oppressed everywhere, serving up examples of the black heart of men in power and somberly mourning the people who fell victim to that greed. Of course, history can be interpreted many different ways by many different people, so a lot of the content of Bitter Tears are kept to a fact-only basis, rather than dealing with something fictional and thus meaningless. Indeed, Ira Hayes was a real person, and so was Chief Cornplanter, the man with which a treaty was signed that guaranteed the ownership of the Seneca land between Pennsylvania and New York “as long as the grass shall grow”, which was broken by John F. Kennedy in 1961 (yeah, Cash didn’t have to reach too far back into history at this point). The stories more or less speak for themselves, and their accuracy (at least as far as I’ve studied) is indeed respectable.
One of the reasons for the album being so “accurate” was the intense amount of study that Cash put into making the album, and the assistance he was given in writing the majority of the songs from a Hopi Indian named Peter LaFarge. Peter was an intense scholar of his tribe and all the other Native American tribes and knew just about all there is to know about their displacement. He was no slouch when it came to songwriting either, in fact he might have gotten his biggest break from his work with Cash if he hadn’t died less than a year after the Bitter Tears album was completed.
Interestingly, Cash met LaFarge through a mutual friend named Ed McCurdy, while in the throes of drug addiction. McCurdy and LaFarge were also addicts, and Ed gave Cash some pointers on how to handle himself with the drugs, though LaFarge decided to chase down some Dexedrine with too much Thorazine and took a 4 day nap. When he woke up, he and Cash became friends and started working together to create the album. Wonderful how drug-induced comas can bring kindred artists together, eh? Either way, I’m pretty sure it was party tricks like that Dexedrin + Thorazine nap that eventually killed LaFarge, I guess Cash was more fortunate in that regard.
Either way, Bitter Tears is a brilliant album, and despite Cash being nearly at his worst as far as drug use goes, the performance on the album is solid and memorable. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was Cash’s most important album, but it’s right up there, and it’s certainly one of the best examples of his dedication to quality, especially considering the rate of albums he was cranking out at that time.
On a personal note, unlike Cash, I actually am of Irish heritage with a good portion of Cherokee Indian and have studied them before. A fascinating character I ran across was Sequoyah, who single-handedly invented the Cherokee alphabet (the first system of written language in any Native American tribe) after being inspired by the English and their “talking white leaves”. Cash wrote a song called “The Talking Leaves” which tells this story, and it’s kind of a favorite of mine for that reason.
Well, this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing about Johnny Cash, but we are certainly getting close. Until then!