Recommended CDs

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Classic Cash: Bitter Tears

This is another excerpt from a thread about Johnny Cash I posted on a messageboard about three years ago.

June 1964. On the 9th, Dylan records Another Side of Bob Dylan in a single, all-night session fuelled by two bottles of Beaujolais. While on the 30th June and 1st July, Cash records the eight songs that make up Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.

It is an ironic twist of fate that in the same month that Dylan bade farewell to "protest songs" forever in songs like "My Back Pages" ("I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now), Cash should record his first protest album: although as we have seen, sympathy for the downtrodden and exploited and even the criminal was a characteristic of his songs from the start.

As we have seen in our survey of Ride This Train and Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Cash's musical interests lay far beyond the confines of Nashville, and he was basically working in the same field as the hipster folkie crowd in Greenwich Village, New York, with the exception that he had sung traditional songs in the cotton fields rather than learning them from records. Cash is the bridge between country and folk. He was never as conservative as many of the Nashville crowd, and when he first heard Dylan's Freewheelin' , he recognized someone with the same sympathy for the underdog that characterized his own best work. He would play the record before and after his shows and eventually wrote to Dylan expressing his admiration. It was no surprise that in his reply Dylan stated that he had followed Cash's career since first hearing 'I Walk The Line'. In fact, Dylan can be heard talking about Johnny Cash (albeit none too complimentarily) in the very first circulating recording we have of Dylan (when he was just an 18-year-old Minnesota kid called Robert Zimmerman). Despite enjoying a huge pop hit with "Ring of Fire" in 1963, Cash was determined to make his own folk-protest album.

A few weeks after making that album, Cash and Dylan finally met (July 1964) . "When Bob Dylan first met Johnny Cash, at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964," Kris Kristofferson said in Madison Square Garden in 1992, "they say that Dylan just looked up at him, like a big tree, and walked all the way around him and said, YEAH!" This would be the beginning of a friendship that would culminate in their recording together in Nashville in 1969. In the meantime, when the furore over Dylan's going electric erupted in 1965, Cash wrote a letter to Billboard Magazine, ending with the words: "Shut up and let him sing!"

Back to Bitter Tears. This is a very impressive album: a fine selection of songs brilliantly arranged and performed. Five of the eight songs were written by the American Indian folk singer Peter LaFarge.

Peter LaFarge, adopted son of Oliver LaFarge, first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature–the book was "Laughing Boy," a sympathetic treatment of the Navajo Indians. The F.B.I. took an interest in Peter and began hounding him when he organized FAIR (Federation for American Indian Rights). Several months before he died, the F.B.I. raided his New York apartment at midnight. They scattered and tore up his papers; they put handcuffs on him and dragged him to Bellevue in his pajamas [sic]. They put pressure on Bellevue to declare him insane, but Bellevue could find nothing wrong and turned him loose.

LaFarge died of a stroke just a few months after Cash's recording of Bitter Tears, although rumours persist that he committed suicide. His own recordings of his songs are still available on Folkways and Broadside recordings, but his name remains known largely through Johnny Cash, and Bitter Tears stands as an unintended tribute (the liner notes still talk about him in the present tense, so it is to be hoped that he lived long enough to hear the album).

It cannot be stressed too much that Cash was taking a big risk in releasing Bitter Tears. He needed commercial hits like "Ring of Fire" to enable him to persuade Columbia to allow him to continue producing his American musical histories such as the albums I have been focusing on (from Ride This Train onwards). But this political album risked alienating his core, basically conservative, country music audience. Cash actually took out full page ads in the music press, daring radio programmers to play "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", the single off the album, but to no avail. Although the single was a hit, radio stations refused to play it.

Dylan's song "With God on Our Side" is basically about the way history is taught in American schools. "Oh, my name it means nothing/My age it means less/The country I come from/Is called the Mid-West/I's taught and brought up there/The laws to abide/And that the land that I live in/Has God on its side." The rest of the song is a recital of the history lessons learned in school. (It owes a debt to Pete Seeger's "What did you learn in school today?") One of the verses is: "Oh, the history books tell it/They tell it so well/The cavalry's charged/The Indians fell/The cavalry's charged/The Indians died/For the country was young then/With God on its side."

But a new generation was beginning to question these history lessons. They were to find that Johnny Cash had already been there. The basically patriotic Ride This Train already pays tribute to the Indian contribution to American history and mourns the fate of the native Americans (as they were not then called!) evicted from their homes and slaughtered in great numbers as the white man moved westward, ever westward...

A tall, brooding man, Cash could pass for a native American himself; in fact, he did claim at this time to be a quarter Cherokee, although he later admitted this was untrue. A self-mythologising story, perhaps, but it does show the extent of his sympathy with his subject. And he took the songs back to the people who inspired them: there is remarkable footage in the BBC documentary "The Last American Hero" shown over Christmas that shows Johnny performing "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" to a native American tribe.

So here is a rundown of all the tracks on Bitter Tears n its entirety. It's still in print, but has not yet been remastered.

As Long As the Grass Shall Grow (Peter LaFarge)

A brilliant performance by Johnny. Note especially the effectiveness of the spoken interjections at the end: "Are are you thirsty?... My brother, are you warm?" These never fail to bring a tear to my eyes. The lyrics tell the story of how the Seneca Indians were cheated of their land despite a treaty signed by Washington himself. After the American Revolution, the United States found itself very weak. To placate the American Indians (many of whom fought on the side of the British), the US government offered numerous peace treaties promising land "as long as the grass shall grow and the waters flow". US Courts later interpreted such phrases as pure metaphor, and denied claims to land that the treaties promised. LaFarge uses the example of the damming of Allegheny River, and the consequent dislocation of many Native Americans, near Pittsburgh as proof of these broken treaties. The damming of the river flooded the land of the Seneca Indians (of the Iroqois tribe):

The Iroquois Indians used to rule from Canada way south
But no one fears the Indians now and smiles the liar's mouth
The Senecas hired an expert to figure another site
But the great good army engineers said that he had no right
Although he showed them another plan and showed them another way
They laughed in his face and said no deal Kinuza dam is here to stay
Congress turned the Indians down brushed off the Indians plea
So the Senecas have renamed the dam: they call it "Lake Perfidy".

Apache Tears

One of only two self-penned songs on the record, a simple and effective ballad mourning the tragic fate of the Apache tribe. A couple of explanations: the lyrics mention "Mescalero death moans" - Mescalero is one of the divisions of the Apache.

Dead grass dry roots hunger crying in the night
Ghost of broken hearts and laws are here
And who saw the young squaw they judged by their whiskey law
Tortured till she died of pain and fear

In July 1832, Congress passed a law that totally banned alcohol in the Indian country.

Custer (Peter LaFarge)

A truly remarkable performance as Cash gets right into the persona of an Indian positively exulting in the death of General Custer. This must have been startling in 1964 and later to any white American who had learned only traditional American history: here that history is gleefully turned on its head or presented sarcastically.

Now I will tell you, buster, that I ain't a fan of Custer
And the General, he don't ride well any more!
To some he was a hero, but to me his score was zero
And the General, he don't ride well any more.
Now Custer done his fightin' without too much excitin'
And the General, he don't ride well any more
General Custer come in pumpin' when the men were out a huntin'
But the General he don't ride well any more
With victories he was swimmin', he killed children dogs and women
But the General he don't ride well any more
Crazy Horse sent out the call to Sitting Bull and Gall
And the General he don't ride well any more
Now Custer split his men - well he won't do that again!
'Cause the General, he don't ride well any more!
Twelve thousand warriors waited, they were unanticipated
And the General he don't ride well any more
It's not called an Indian victory, but a bloody massacre
And the General, he don't ride well any more
There might have been more enthusin', if us Indians had been losin'
But the General he don't ride well any more
General George A.Custer, oh, his yellow hair had lustre
But the General, he don't ride well any more!
For now the General's silent, he got barbered violent
And the General, he don't ride well any more
Oh, the General he don't ride well any more!

The Talking Leaves

The other self-penned song on the album, which tells its own story.

The Ballad of Ira Hayes (Peter LaFarge)

The single from the album, see above. Dylan later recorded this for his "New Morning" album, though it was eventually omitted, only to be released on Columbia's revenge album when Dylan left the label in 1973. The album was simply entitled Dylan and consists entirely of songs released against his wishes. It is no longer available in the U.S.A., although it was released in the nineties on CD in the United Kingdom under the title A Fool Such As I.

The song tells the story of a "simple Pima Indian", who, although he had fought for the United States in World War II and even taken part in the famous hoisting of the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima, was not given a decent pension and returned home to a life of poverty and alcoholism.

Drums (Peter LaFarge)

Another song about education - this one the attempted forcible assimilation of the remaining Indians, partly by teaching them history from the white man's point of view, even giving them "white" names. The chorus warns that Indian culture will not go away.

Well you may teach me this land's hist'ry but we taught it to you first
We broke your hearts and bent your journeys broken treaties left us cursed
Even now you have to cheat us even though you think us tame
In our losing we found proudness in your winning you found shame

And there are drums beyond the mountain Indian drums that you can't hear
There are drums beyond the mountain and they're getting mighty near....

White Girl

A song about the difficulties of interracial marriage, a very hot topic in America at the time.

The Vanishing Race

The final song was written by J. Horton, and is impossibly melancholy, as the singer mourns the death of his people.

And he gazed below with a heart of woe where the prairie schooners sail
A vision formed like a mortal storm in the dust of the wagon train
A vanishing race appeared in space and he sang his sad refrain
Ii Ii ou Ii Ii Ii ou Ii Ii ou....

Three years after I wrote the above piece, Cash's classic protest album has still not been remastered.


Anonymous said...

What comes across in this album is a very real anger in Cash's voice. And while those years were tough for JR in terms of addiction, that deep resonance of voice, almost to the point of hoarseness, can raise the hair on my neck. The album is heavy-handed in lyrical content, but Cash gives it legitimacy in his delivery. One of my first, and most favorite albums as a kid, and still a favorite as an adult- deserving of remastery, and a much wider audience. A monument. MGR

Sandra said...

A few corrections: It has been written several times by Dylan himself that Cash and Dylan met backstage at The Gaslight in NYC. Maybe cash does not remember it so well as he was at the club to see Peter La Farge play at the suggestion of singer Ed McGurdy.
La Farge was not adopted, he was the biological son of Pulitzer prize winner Oliver la Farge; The FBI may had an interest in him but a Freedom of Information act request found no FBI file on La Farge so it may have been local police instead; La Farge died (Oct 1965) more than a year after Cash's album was released (June 1964). The success of Cash's record inspired La Farge to record a final album called On The Warpath (Folkways). His death was most likely a drug and alcohol induced stroke, though the official death certificate reads Pending Further Study. His mother refused an autopsy and took his body back to Colorado where he is buried on the former family ranch. I have rights to the La Farge story and produced the documentary on him, thanks, Sandra Hale Sculman