With nearly 100 albums to his name, picking out music by Johnny Cash is a challenge to say the least. From ‘rock n roll’ to Americana, Country, Christian, and even something akin to Punk in his final few work – there is a great deal of things to unpack from his music. Cash is a musician whose identity is persistent throughout his works despite the changing themes of his music and the circumstances of his life.
His albums portray not only his emotional but physical development, reflective of both the good and bad moments within his life which he dwelt so much upon. In style, with his bass-baritone voice and stripped back country-western sound, his music speaks of power and raw emotion, holding up well when compared with contemporary music and conveying sentiments most of today’s performances struggles to capture in such candid and straightforward terms.
Bitter Tears: Johnny Cash Sings Ballads Of The American Indian (1964) is unique amongst most of Cash’s work, exemplary not only of his style but of his personal convictions and development. Released to moderate success and some controversy with his traditional country fanbase, this record is not just a statement about the treatment of Native Americans but a microcosmic study into the life and musicality of Cash.
As with many artists, their life is reflected in their works, however, nowhere is this clearer than in Cash’s music. His style of narration in this album certainly gives this impression. The opening track, ‘As Long As the Grass Shall Grow’, we hear Cash taking up the role of the storyteller and possibly the harbinger:
Across the Allegheny River they're throwing up a dam It will flood the Indian country a proud day for Uncle Sam It has broke the ancient treaty with a politician's grin It will drown the Indians graveyards Cornplanter can you swim
Typical to any Cash album, his voice acts as the sombre main feature and requires little else to make his songs sound good. The power of his vocal allows the songs to have more lyrical emphasis, which is central to this album and nearly any within his opus of work. What sets Bitter Tears apart from the rest is the narratives it tells.
Cash manages to evocatively voice the history and suffering faced by the Native Americans, without it feeling ‘preachy’ or instilling the notion that either he or this album will change the events that have unfolded.
In the writing of the album Cash collaborated with folksinger and activist Peter La Farge. La Farge, as well as legitimising the native American perspective and telling’s of the album, wrote one of its most prominent and poignant songs, ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’. ‘The Ballad…’ is now considered one of the top 100 Western songs of all time and tells the story of Ira Hayes, one of the famed flag raisers of Iwo Jima.
His story is immensely sad and while not common of the native American experience in the modern period is still very much representative of it. Returning to the US as a celebrity and war hero due to his heroism and the infamous photograph of marines raising the flag, he would unfortunately suffer from survivor’s guilt, turn to alcoholism, and would die at the age of 32.
The inclusion of this story in the album makes an even more impressive piece. The album manages to detail not only the more traditional ‘horror’ stories between Native Americans and the U.S government, but even looks to broader issues surrounding war, violence, and human suffering that are relatable no matter who or where you are from. In the vibrancy of these stories, this album paints a picture of America that few, especially in the country music scene, would have been aware of.
Cash imbues this piece with a great deal of emotion, in which the tone of bitterness and disdain reflected is something that only someone with a military background could do.
La Farge also wrote ‘As Long as the Grass Shall Grow’, ‘Custer’, ‘Drums’ and ‘White Girl’, while Cash would write ‘Apache Tears’ and ‘The Talking Leaves’ by himself and ‘The Vanishing Race’ with the help of Johnny Horton, much of whose work was to do with ballads on American history.
I would usually frown on this perceived lack of originality. Not writing all the songs in your album is usually not a good sign, but in this instance, it speaks a lot about the artist in question, his style, and the communal nature of music. In working with other artists to produce this work, it only increases its standing as a piece of socio-political commentary, in which its emphasis on a new and truthful form of storytelling shines through.
Bitter Tears is centred around the intimate expression of sorrow and anger at the historical and contemporary treatment of native Americans, written at a time when many were blind to it and when the ‘American Dream’ and America as the world power were dominant concepts.
I cannot help but look at this work as a piece of historical revisionism, which for Cash’s fanbase might not have sat well. Track 3, ‘Custer’, is about the now infamous ‘war hero’ Colonel Custer. The song feels almost like a piece of satire and is a particularly resonant track:
With victories he was swimming: killed children, dogs and women, But the General, he don’t ride well anymore.
‘Custer’ is sung in simplistic and stripped-down Cash style, feeling very much like one of his own, despite being written by La Farge. I do not need to relate the story of Custer to you to convey how well this song captures it. Cash is myth-busting in this song and pulling apart one of the many fantastical historical constructions that crop up in most US history books, he is not only reflecting a personal disdain for such actions but also conveying the subjective nature of history:
A lot of analysis could be spent on each of the songs in this album, it is not only testament to the song writing ability of Cash, La Farge and Horton but also to the skill of Cash in his performance and the conceptual backing of this album.
Instead of merely dedicating one or two songs to this cause, he dedicated an album and one of his best at that. A core theme of the country music in the 50s and 60s was that of the Cowboy (a constructed fantasy) and the expansion into ‘Indian’ territory, in this album, Cash was not only turning this theme on its head but was going against what, for many, were core assumptions still close to home.
In terms of reflecting contemporary ideology around race, ethnicity, imperialism, and genocide, this album is not only impressive but enriching. Cash puts himself in the place of the Native American in Bitter Tears, aided by the song writing of La Farge, and deals with various topics in his songs about the plight of the native American. From alcoholism and the stealing of ancestral land, to the way history has been tainted by the white colonial aggressors.
For a time, Cash even believed himself to have been of native American (Cherokee) ancestry, motivating him to make the album and speak out for native Americans. I find this particularly endearing and it gives him a far more personal connection with the album. He certainly was not pulling any sort of Elizabeth Warren-esque co-optation stunt. Despite this lack of ancestral connection Cash had still grown up in the mid-west; farming land that once belonged to these peoples. The connection he felt with them and with countless other oppressed peoples without a voice was genuine and shines through in his music.
The two most beautiful songs of this album are ‘The Talking Leaves’ and ‘The Vanishing Race’. Both were written by cash, the latter with the help of Horton. ‘The Talking Leaves’ is a true ballad in every sense of the word, telling a story of language and the Cherokee polymath Sequoyah who established a writing system for the Cherokee people. This song is one of Cash’s best written and it is especially powerful in this album because of its nuance. The song starts with sadness, the loss of a battle and the implication of cultural genocide:
Across the smoking battle ground where red and white men lay all around So many here had died The wind had scattered around snow white leaves upon the ground Not leaves like leaves from trees
However, the real power and influence of this song comes through when Sequoyah learns to create a Cherokee ‘alphabet’, which he has seemingly spent his entire life developing (but let’s not get too bogged down with biographical details):
Sequoia's hair by now was white his eyes began to lose their light
But he taught all who would believe
That the Indian's thoughts could be written down
Just as the white men's there on the ground and he left us these talking leaves
‘The Vanishing Race’ is perhaps the most notable song of the album is another ballad and the most unique. This song is haunting and eery, making the most of Cash’s stripped back and deep-dark sombre tones that makes the song sound like a traditional native ballad.
When country DJ’s failed to support and play this album Cash accused the music industry of wallowing in meaninglessness – this certainly strikes an important chord when we think about the music of today… Have we found ourselves bereft of songs with any actual meaning?
While it is certainly not essential to have a concrete or significant message within a song, it can add the emotion necessary for the listener to connect with a piece beyond the music itself. The album in question is able to transcend many others, not simply thanks to Cash’s musical capability, but through its historical importance.
Its harsh realism is refreshing – it does not shy away from painful topics. Cash was self-proclaimed as a country-boy and certainly held many of the views common to that background and period that might now be considered unpalatable, yet he was still progressive and intelligent. Nowhere is his earnest humanity clearer than in his music and his protest songs.
Bitter Tears, whether you are a hardened fan or a Cash-virgin, will do something for all who listen to it. Fundamentally it exemplifies the gritty realism of Cash and his give-no-fucks attitude which somehow only amplified his Christianity. His music holds an earnest conviction and because it is simple and minimalist, experimenting a bit with electric guitar and bass to give it a groovier sound, it compares favourably with contemporary indie rock and punk.
The beautiful thing about country music is its simplicity. It is wholesome and seperated from the most intense and hubristic sounds that we have become used to nowadays. There is a candidness to country music that can also be found in its close relatives, blues, funk, and soul of the 20th century.
The intimacy and expression so present in Bitter Tears are beginning to die out in popular music, replaced instead by a falsehood and flakiness which is only making the music of artists like Cash stand out more. The music industry is being curtailed by the struggle to make money from their product. For the majority, music has become a medium which is less about artistic expression and storytelling and more about producing meaningless content (yes, I’m looking at you TikTok).
Listening to the music of Cash makes music feel real again. Like I said before, this album is based upon a far more concrete and emotive context and conceptual backing than many other works and it is this meaning which makes Cash stand out. From his marriage and his Christian faith to his drug habit and political views, Cash’s music is rich in these stories and morals. Luckily, it also makes for great albums.
Written by Niall Hawkins | Illustrated by Ursi Tolliday