I happen to be a Johnny Cash fan. In fact, you could say I am a fan of the entire Cash family. As a boy I started collecting Johnny’s albums. I would get one of my friends to drive me up to Enumclaw and for $2.95 purchase “mono” (as opposed to Stereo) albums of artists whose music I enjoyed. When I was about 14, Johnny came out with a controversial album entitled “Bitter Tears – Ballads of the American Indian.” To this day it’s one of my favorites.
I didn’t know until years later that Johnny Cash was a genealogist. He enjoyed studying his family history, and for years you could see his hand-filled-in pedigree charts in “The House of Cash,” the Cash museum in Nashville. While researching his genealogy, Johnny became convinced of his Cherokee ancestry, and like many other genealogists, came to identify with his ancestors. In 1964 he had a #3 hit called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” written by folk-singer Peter La Forge, the story of one of the men who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. It was a heart-wrenching song, as were a number of the songs on the album. In fact, as I set here writing this blog, the tears are running down my face. Click here or on the title above to see & hear video/audio versions of the song. The first video is a compilation of video with the studio produced audio of the song, while the second isn’t as polished, being a film recorded live before an American Indian audience. Following is a title list from Johnny’s “Bitter Tears” album:
- As Long As The Grass Shall Grow (Peter La Forge)
- Apache Tears (Johnny Cash)
- Custer (Peter La Forge)
- The Talking Leaves (Johnny Cash)
- The Ballad of Ira Hayes (Peter La Forge)
- Drums (Peter La Forge)
- White Girl (Peter La Forge)
- The Vanishing Race (Johnny Horton)
I see that Michael Bucher and Joanne Shenandoah, in conjunction with Hondo Mesa Records have recently released “Bitter Tears – Sacred Ground,” a tribute to the Johnny’s 1964 album. I mentioned above that Johnny’s album was controversial. Released at the height of the folk music revival in the U.S., it was blacklisted by commercial broadcasting outlets and faded from the stores. Yet it has endured among indigenous people and remains popular across Indian country – and with fans like myself.
Get more information on “Bitter Tears – Sacred Ground” at the April 24, 2009 edition of Indian Country Today.