A Heartbeat and a Guitar

Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears


By Antonino D’Ambrosio

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A Heartbeat and a Guitar tells of the collaboration of two distinct yet connected musicians–iconoclast Johnny Cash and pioneering folk artist Peter La Farge– Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, the album that influenced the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. In this intimate portrayal of the two musicians, D’Ambrosio interviewed surviving members of Cash’s band, his producers, and admirers Pete Seeger and Kris Kristofferson. He renders a dramatic picture of both an era of radical protest and the making of one of the most controversial and enduring works of political pop art of the 1960s.

A Heartbeat and a Guitar is the inspiration for the new album “Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears revisited” featuring a collective of top Americana artists including Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and Kris Kristofferson.


Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer
Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009 (contributor)
No Free Lunch (featuring Lewis Black)
Let Fury Have the Hour: The Clash’s Permanent Revolution
La Terra Promessa: In Sun and Shadow (Part I) and Diamanti nel di Massima (Part II)

For Franco D’Ambrosio

“Like a buddy fallen in battle, these guys made a difference, you’re hearing the truth of a man, a soul, a heart.”
—Arlo Guthrie on Johnny Cash and Peter La Farge
“Gaily the Troubadour / Touched his guitar.”
—Thomas Baynes Bayly
“He who sings scares away his woes.”

I Had to Fight Back
On a particularly gray, cold morning in Bowling Green, Ohio, back in February 2005, I found myself in a small, windowless room, where an undergraduate student from Bowling Green State University had just handed me a stack of records, CDs, books, and magazines. She also congratulated me on the talk I had given the night before. At the invitation of Daniel Boudreau, a Ph.D. candidate in the American Cultural Studies Department, I’d come to Bowling Green on a lecture tour to support my first book, Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer.
The university had graciously offered to grant me access to its prestigious Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives. I soon found myself in the third-floor office of the gregarious archivist Bill Schurk, who regaled me with stories about music and the things archivists find exciting—which I happen to find exciting, too, including the documenting of materials that may seem worthless but over time provide an invaluable record of a moment that has slipped away but thankfully has been preserved forever.
For anyone who loves music, the Sound Recordings Archives is a magnificent place—every recording in human history seems to be housed there. I was excited to get into the shelves of rare LPs, music books, and other music-related media. After speaking with Schurk and his staff, I felt like Tom Hanks’s character in the film Big when he was unleashed in FAO Schwarz and danced joyfully on the huge piano. I requested as many records as I could possibly listen to in my allotted time. The list was long and contained mostly recordings I’d never heard of, including rare albums by Woody Guthrie, The Carter Family, Django Reinhardt, Spencer Davis, Charlie Parker, and The Clash.
After thanking the student who had given me the records, I handled each one as if it were a priceless artifact. (To me they actually all were priceless artifacts.) I listened intently to all of them. Then, near the bottom of the stack, I came upon a Johnny Cash record that I’d checked off the list as an afterthought. I was happy, though, that the record was part of the archives; I had discovered this little-known Cash record while writing about Cash’s collaboration with The Clash’s former front man Joe Strummer for my previous book.
But now, as Cash’s gaunt face and steely eyes stared back at me from the Bitter Tears album cover, I realized that there was something striking, even unsettling about this image. This wasn’t the myth, the persona that has become Johnny Cash, but rather something truer, more authentically John R. Cash, the former sharecropper and cotton picker from Arkansas. In contrast to looking rock ’n’ roll hip—a swaggering, pompadoured balladeer with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder—here his famous head of hair was cropped short and ringed by a red headband. The look in his eyes seemed troubled, as if what he was about to share was something heavy and hard.
I slid the record out of its sleeve and a piece of paper fell out, landing at my feet. Picking it up, I saw that it was a copy of a letter Cash had penned on his own letterhead, with his cursive signature at the top, and the proclamation
at the bottom. One line jumped out at me: “D.J.’s—station managers—owners . . . where are your guts?”
The disc in my hand was not the original pressing. Bear Family Records, a German independent record label, reissued it in 1984 with lyrics, photos, quotes, commentary, and a few extra songs. It was quite clear from reading the essay-like liner notes that lots of people had lots to say about this Cash record.
The title, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, prompted a question: What had Cash been up to? I looked at the recording date: 1964. Barely a year earlier, Cash had scored one of his biggest hits ever with “Ring of Fire.” But the year added another layer of intrigue to the story, for it was a bellwether year in U.S. history. The headlines shouted about the Beatles, Muhammad Ali, the Vietnam War, the Newport Folk Festival, and Martin Luther King Jr.; the Johnson-Goldwater presidential election, the Civil Rights Act, Johnson’s Great Society, and the early stirrings of what a few years later would become known as “Red Power”—taking its cue from the term “Black Power”—the Native movement that took hold in the 1960s and grew in the 1970s among Native people. Recorded four years before Cash’s Folsom Prison performance and the American Indian Movement’s takeover of Alcatraz Island, Bitter Tears was released smack in the middle of the roiling civil rights movement and escalating war in Vietnam. In the face of such momentous change and conflict, an album sympathetic to Native people’s issues and their seemingly never-ending search for justice now seemed to me both a compelling and a daring undertaking.1 At the time, Cash was a music superstar. What kind of response did he get to this album? How did the radio stations respond to a musician who was giving voice to an oppressed group fighting to be heard? A thousand more questions began swirling in my mind, but one was at the root of them all: Why did Cash make this record?
THERE WAS only one way to start finding out, so I lifted the plastic turntable cover, selected the proper setting, placed the record, side 2-up, on the turntable, and moved the needle over to the first song. I pulled the earphones securely over my ears, pushed play, and listened. Soon my head filled with the sound of a flute slowly and hauntingly playing the last bars of taps, immediately calling funeral, wreath-laying, and memorial services to my mind. After more than ten seconds, Cash’s deep, husky voice came in, singing the name “Ira Hayes, Ira Hayes,” quivering over the second “Ira” as he strummed the first few chords of the song on his D-28 Martin guitar. Soon, Cash was joined by soulful backing vocals for what turned out to be the refrain of the song:
Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey-drinkin’ Indian
Or the marine that went to war
These lyrics are the opening lines to “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” clearly a folksong but not in the traditional sense popularized by The Carter Family in the 1920s and 1930s. “Ballad of Ira Hayes” is instead very much a product of the folk revival that was occurring in the 1960s. As the record spun on the turntable, I could sense Woody Guthrie’s spirit embedded in the grooves. I knew Cash had great feeling for Guthrie, who himself had idolized The Carter Family. I could feel the three distinct musical legends, each with family members who became important musicians in their own right—The Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, and Johnny Cash—coming together to form one unique folk family tree. The “topical folksong movement,” as it was called, famously produced scores of musicians who were Guthrie disciples, with Bob Dylan pushing the movement to the forefront of America’s consciousness. Its articulate, impassioned goodwill ambassador was Pete Seeger, but other musicians who walked the streets of Greenwich Village during the folk revival were righteous soldiers of conscience, armed with acoustic guitars and songs telling stories that sought a new America. Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Mark Spolestra, Guy Carawan, John Cohen, Len Chandler, and Joan Baez were some of the major voices in this growing U.S. counterculture chorus. “Ballad of Ira Hayes” is a graphic, poetic account of a Pima named Ira Hayes who goes off to war, becomes a war hero, and then returns home to eventually die an ignoble death blanketed by pain, abandonment, and humiliation. Hayes was not only a Pima who fought in World War II, but he had actually been immortalized in the famous photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. But when I listened to the song that day, I didn’t know Ira Hayes from Von Hayes, a second-rate baseball player on my hometown team, the Philadelphia Phillies, in the 1980s. So much for immortality.
I played the song again and again and again and again. When I looked up at the clock, I’d spent more than an hour listening to just that one song. The other songs were, if not as powerful, certainly as thought-provoking and demanding. The album was a challenge to my senses; it didn’t just open my eyes, it ripped open my mind. Cash not only boldly gave voice to issues of injustice afflicting Native people but musically told the world that compassion was at the very heart of who he was as a person and a musician. He was a storyteller interested in telling the stories of real people, those ignored by the press and politicians. Johnny Cash was a folksinger.
Four hours later, I was still listening to the record, having lost count around the fifteenth time. I looked closely at all the material packed into the sleeve describing various details of what I soon realized was a tremendously controversial album. And then the name Peter La Farge caught my eye. La Farge was listed as the writer of “Ballad of Ira Hayes.” A number of the other songs appearing on the record were also credited to La Farge. My mind was buzzing, eager to learn more about this record and Cash’s collaboration with Peter La Farge.
I HAD come across La Farge’s name once or twice before, but only in passing connection to Bob Dylan. It seemed that La Farge and Dylan were friends, maybe even close friends, during the early days of the ’60s folk revival, when they moved around Greenwich Village together performing on Sundays in Washington Square Park or at venues like Gerdes Folk City or the Gaslight. “Peter La Farge, a folksinger friend of mine, had given me a couple of Colt single-shot repeater pistols,” Dylan later wrote in his autobiography, Chronicles. Ten pages later Dylan also mentioned Cash, who “was trying to change his image, too.” After admitting that he would have liked to have Mick Jones, “the quintessential guitarist” from The Clash, play in his band (a story for another time), Dylan described Cash as not only having “a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. . . . He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger.” For some reason Dylan’s words helped me connect these three disparate individuals to one another: La Farge, Dylan, and Cash. I realized that they shared a common bond: sometimes dark, at times bright, but always fearlessly imaginative.
DESPITE CASH’S unwavering attitude about “not mixing in politics” that usually resulted in an intentionally ambiguous stance in terms of formal politics, he often spoke with a socially aware voice on behalf of society’s outcasts. His songs addressed the realities of people ignored by newspaper headlines and the nightly news. He talked about the dignity of honest work: “If you were a baker, and you baked a loaf of bread and it fed somebody, then your life has been worthwhile. And if you were a weaver, and you wove some cloth and your cloth kept somebody warm, your life has been worthwhile.” Of course he sang about the prisoner. “Convicts are the best audience I’ve played for,” Cash said when asked why he played for them so often. In Cash’s voice are echoes of what Woody Guthrie once said: “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”
As my senses sharpened around Bitter Tears, I felt that of all the personas that Johnny Cash embodied, here was the album that really embodied his true nature: the rebellious troubadour. It seemed to me that nothing in Cash’s life work matched Bitter Tears in its scale and courage.
Throughout his career, Cash was no stranger to controversy—battling, and sometimes shaming, record industry executives when they acted with willful ignorance or prejudice against his music because it didn’t fit into their comfortable, easily compartmentalized view of who he was or who he should be as a performer. As I thought about this, I was surprised to discover, among the other items stuffed inside the album’s sleeve, a 1964 Billboard ad in the form of another letter that Cash had written on behalf of Bitter Tears, this one to the record industry. Appearing in the August 22, 1964, issue of the magazine, the letter was blistering, offering no less than an indictment of a music establishment that Cash deemed guilty of the worst kind of crime: censorship. As I read the letter, it seemed to breathe life into words that William Blake had written a century before: “When I tell the truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do.” Cash wrote that “‘Ballad of Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine.” When I glanced at the last sentence, I knew that Cash was not afraid to put it all on the line. He wrote: “I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of ‘Ira Hayes.’ Just one question: Why?”
Oh, my.
And so the story begins. . . .

A Heartbeat
Johnny Cash on stage at the Newport Folk Festival, July 24, 1964, where he performed “Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Photo by Gai Terrell/Redferns.

The Clouds Fall
IN DECEMBER 1968, four years after the release of the record Bitter Tears : Ballads of the American Indian, dozens of people crammed themselves shoulder-to-shoulder inside the old trading post at the base of Cemetery Hill in South Dakota. Most had to raise themselves up on their toes to get a glimpse of the man who came to visit them. “If I had a guitar with me I’d play something for you right now,” Johnny Cash said as he was pushed toward the back of the trading post. From somewhere in the crowd an old black guitar was passed forward. “Here you go,” said the man who handed the guitar to the bemused music star. Cash took the guitar and glanced down at it to get a feel for the battered instrument. It certainly wasn’t anything like the D-28 Martin he often played and just as often destroyed. Cash must have thought, “Yeah, I could do something with this.” Moving his left hand up and down the frets, strumming the rough strings with his right hand, he tried the best he could to tune the guitar. Smiling next to him was his new wife, June Carter. Cash looked over at June to see if she was ready. He steadied himself, and then looked deep into the crowd.
FOR NEARLY eighty years the trading post on the Pine Ridge Reservation had served as a stolid witness to one of the most gruesome acts of violence committed on U.S. soil. Until Cash’s visit, the sounds haunting the post were the screams of three hundred Lakota Sioux men, women, and children who were hunted down by five hundred troops of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry. “Remember Little Bighorn,” some survivors heard the soldiers shout. The Seventh Cavalry had once been General George Armstrong Custer’s regiment. Having taken place near the Little Bighorn River in the eastern Montana Territory on June 24 and June 26, 1876, the Battle of Little Bighorn is the most famous battle of the “Indian Wars.” It remains one of the greatest victories for Native people and one of the most disastrous defeats for the U.S. Cavalry.
In an act of gross arrogance, Custer had misjudged, on the eve of battle, just how badly the U.S. Cavalry was outnumbered and therefore tactically exposed. Compounding one of the worst military mistakes in history was Custer’s reckless attack plan, which was to launch a surprise assault on the Lakota, who they believed were badly outnumbered by the Cavalry. They weren’t. In fact, chief Horned Horsewatching, who observed the battle from a hillside, said afterward that the Sioux camp was so big that it extended over five miles. Soon after attacking, the cavalry was completely surrounded. Custer’s folly led to the death of more than two hundred troops and sixteen officers; fifty-five men were wounded. Led by Sitting Bull, the Lakota suffered the loss of only thirty-six warriors, with 168 wounded. In American popular culture, the battle is known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” which is a far too forgiving rewriting of the general’s terrible military incompetence on that day. Native people remember it as the “Battle of the Greasy Grass.”
At Pine Ridge fourteen years after, the Seventh Cavalry rode for revenge, and by way of four massive Hotchkiss guns, got it. The Lakota warriors, yelling for the women and children to run—“Inyanka po! Inyanka po!”—tried to resist with their bare hands. “We tried to run,” Louise Weasel Bear said later, “but they shot us like we were buffalo.” Ignoring Miniconjou Lakota chief Big Foot’s raising of a white flag, which signaled to the cavalry that his people would not fight or resist, the U.S. troops began firing at a rate of nearly a shell per second, quickly cutting down the unarmed Lakota. Dead bodies covered the ground. Disobeying orders to load the bodies into wagons, the soldiers instead chose to leave the dead on the ground to be buried by an ensuing blizzard, hoping the expected large snowfall would conceal the atrocities they committed. Only fifty Lakota are believed to have survived what is now simply referred to as Wounded Knee.
The U.S. government awarded twenty-five Medals of Honor for heroism on the battlefield during what it deemed to be the last battle between the United States and Native people. Six days later, L. Frank Baum, a young editor in Aberdeen, South Dakota, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer: “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” Nine years later, in 1900, he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the children’s novel that became the classic film, a perennial American favorite played on television during the Christmas season. Ironically, the Wounded Knee massacre took place four days after Christmas.
The surviving Lakota found shelter in a nearby Episcopal mission after spending hours huddled and bleeding outside in wagons, exposed to the freezing cold, while an indifferent army decided what to do with them. Lying on hay once inside, some of the survivors noticed a large sign with bold letters hanging above the pulpit:


Now the old trading post was about to be filled with a different sound. The crowd became quiet, hushed by the first sounds from the stand-in guitar. The silence was broken only by Cash’s deep baritone voice, balanced by the melodic voice of June Carter. Standing among the Lakota, Cash could have sung anything—he could have chanted the telephone book—and the people in that old trading post wouldn’t have cared. There was something special about this moment. When Cash sang “I Walk the Line,” “Jackson,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” the crowd’s appreciation shook the rickety trading post to its foundation. For a short time, for those listening, Cash’s music helped calm the tortured echoes of the past.
A WESTERN Union telegram dated November 24, 1968, contained two simple lines:
“Johnny Cash show definitely willing to play
St Francis Monday evening Dec Ninth. Please confirm.”
John L. Smith, a writer who became Cash’s official discographer, stared at the telegram in amazement. More than a year had passed since he first met Cash at the KRNT Theater in Des Moines, Iowa, where the musician was performing three sold-out shows. During the meeting Cash wanted Smith to listen to an “Indian song” he’d just recorded, “The Flint Arrowhead.” As Cash fumbled backstage with a large reel-to-reel tape recorder, looking in vain for the song, the two discussed various aspects of Native history. “He never did manage to play the song for me,” Smith recalls. But afterward, Smith received a three-page letter from Cash. The musician wanted to accompany Smith on one of his many visits to Native reservations. “If I could provide him pictures of the actual battlefield in 1890, he would give me one of his guitars,” Smith explains. “I thought, ‘None of this will ever happen.’”
It did happen. Smith organized a visit to the Rosebud Reservation and then the Pine Ridge Reservation in December 1968. At Rosebud, Cash played a standing-room-only benefit for the Sioux at the St. Francis Mission. The Rapid City Journal, publishing since 1891, the year after Wounded Knee, reported that Cash gave up a “guaranteed $10,000 concert in London scheduled for that same night.”
That year marked a rebirth for Cash. In January 1968 he had performed a concert for inmates at Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California, just twenty miles from the state capital in Sacramento.
“He called me in 1968 and said, ‘This is Johnny Cash,’” record producer Bob Johnston says. “I said, ‘I know who you are.’ He then said, ‘I’ve always had an idea to record at a prison and Sam Phillips wouldn’t let me and Columbia won’t let me so I guess you won’t.’ I picked up the phone and got Folsom first.” Columbia Records had no clue why Cash wanted to do this, but that mattered little to Cash or Johnston. “I got a call two weeks later from Cash,” Johnston recalls. “He said that Columbia called and said they would fire me and drop him even if we thought about making a live album. They told him a prison record would ruin his career. Three months later I called him and said, ‘We’re going to Folsom on Saturday. Pack your bags.’ And he did.” The resulting record, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, was a huge success, climbing to the top of the Billboard country and pop charts. “I cut the record and it was seven million,” Johnston says. “It was always an environment with Johnny, but it was the kind of environment [where] you had to fight for everything you ever did.”
But at Pine Ridge, almost a year later, it was as if a century had passed since Cash appeared at Folsom Prison. Martin Luther King Jr., dead. Bobby Kennedy, dead. Both assassinated, and with them hope, or maybe peace or something still unknowable, was also dead. President Lyndon B. Johnson, facing an intense backlash against the war in Vietnam, announced in March that he would not run for reelection. In April he signed the momentous Civil Rights Act into law, but it appeared that his ambitious “Great Society” program was faltering and possibly headed for failure. Waiting in the wings was former vice president Richard M. Nixon. Once consigned to the political graveyard, the Republican had won the presidential election against Democratic candidate George McGovern by a whisker in November.
Cash found himself standing in front of a group of people that the United States had time and again tried its best to destroy. When he stepped up to the microphone on the makeshift stage of the St. Francis gymnasium of the Rosebud Reservation, the first two rows were filled with Lakota who smiled reassuringly as Cash began performing. Cash decided to play mostly songs from Bitter Tears. When he got around to playing “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the smiles of the chiefs, who were in full dress and seated in the front row, quickly dropped to frowns. “This happened sometimes when we played ‘Ira Hayes,’” bassist Marshall Grant of the Tennessee Two said. “Its meaning was sometimes misunderstood by both white and Indian audiences.”


On Sale
Oct 13, 2009
Page Count
240 pages
Bold Type Books

Antonino D’Ambrosio

About the Author

Antonino D’Ambrosio is the founder and director of La Latta New Media Collective, an independent media justice and production organization based in New York City. His writing has appeared in the Nation, Monthly Review, Clamour, and many others. In 2001 the New York Times described the work of La Latta as “creating true democracy” through independent media. Antonino D’Ambrosio lives in New York City.

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