My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Classic Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian’ (1964)

bitter tearsRegardless of when he actually started wearing black, the legend of the ‘Man In Black’ starts here with this album.

By the time Bitter Tears was released, Cash had issued seven albums on Sun Records and eleven studio albums (including a Christmas album) on Columbia. This album, his eighteenth, although not the first album built around a theme, was the first album built around a cause.

Released in October 1964, the tracks on the album focus exclusively on the history and plight of Native Americans, with a strong focus the uncaring and unfair treatment of the original peoples of North America. Although the album only contains eight songs, the album itself ran the usual thirty minutes expected of an album during the 1960s.

It says much about the stature Cash already had as an artist that Columbia allowed him to release as noncommercial an album as Bitter Tears.

The album opens up with “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”, by Native American Peter La Farge. The song is about the loss of Seneca land in Pennsylvania due to the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the early 1960s.

As long as the moon shall rise as long as the rivers flow
As long as the sun will shine as long as the grass shall grow
The Senecas are an Indian tribe of the Iroquios nation
Down on the New York Pennsylvania Line you’ll find their reservation
After the US revolution corn planter was a chief
He told the tribe these men they could trust that was his true belief
He went down to Independence Hall and there was a treaty signed
That promised peace with the USA and Indian rights combined
George Washington gave his signature the Government gave its hand
They said that now and forever more that this was Indian land
As long as the moon shall rise…

On the Seneca reservation there is much sadness now
Washington’s treaty has been broken and there is no hope no how
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 corn planter can you swim
The earth is mother to the the Senecas they’re trampling sacred ground
Change the mint green earth to black mud flats as honor hobbles down
As long as the moon shall rise.

Johnny Cash penned “Apache Tears”, a bitter song about the mistreatment of the Apaches.

“Custer” by Peter La Farge is a Native American take on what happened at Little Big Horn. While conventional folklore often features General George Armstrong Custer as a heroic commander and victim, this song shows him as a vain and pompous individual as viewed from the Native American perspective:

Now I will tell you `busters`
I`m not a fan of Custer`s;
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 George, he`d had victories,
But never massacres;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

Old George had done his fightin`
Without too much excitin`
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

When the men were away at huntin`
Old Custer would come in pumpin`;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

He`d kill children, dogs and women,
With victories he was swimmin`;
And the general he don`t ride well any more.

My favorite song on the album, “The Talking Leaves” was penned by Johnny Cash and tells the story of Sequoia (or Sequoyah), the Native American who developed written version of the Cherokee language, previously only an oral language.

Sequoia’s winters were sixteen
Silent tongue spirit clean
He walked at his father’s side
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
Sequoia said, “What can this be?”
“What’s the strange thing here I see?”
“From where come leaves like these?”
Sequoia turned to his father’s eyes
And he said, “Father you’re wise
From where come such snow white leaves
With such strange marks upon these squares
Not even the wise owl could put them there
So strange these snow white leaves”
His father shielding his concern
Resenting the knowledge Sequoia yearned
Crumbled the snow white leaves
He said, “When I explain then it’s done
These are talking leaves, my son
The white men’s talking leaves”
The white man takes a berry of black and red
And an eagle’s feather from the eagle’s bed
And he makes bird track marks
And the marks on the leaves they say
Carry messages to his brother far away
And his brother knows what’s in his heart

The only single released from the album was another La Farge composition, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. The song tells the story of the life and death of Ira Hayes, a young US Marine of Pima descent, who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, but died drunk and broke on the reservation a few short years later. The song made it to #3 on Billboard’s country singles chart

Ira Hayes…
Ira Hayes…
Call him drunken Ira Hayes,
He won’t answer anymore,
Not the whiskey drinking Indian,
Or the marine that went to war.

“Drums” is yet another La Farge composition, this song a bitter about the US government’s efforts to suppress Native American culture:

From the Indian reservation to the governmental school
Well, they’re goin’ to educate me to the white men’s Golden Rule
And I’m learning very quickly for I’ve learned to be ashamed
And I come when they call Billy though I’ve got an Indian name

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

And when they think that they’d changed me
C ut my hair to meet their needs
Will they think, I’m white or Indian
Quarter blood or just half breed

Let me tell you, Mr. Teacher
When you say, you’ll make me right
In five hundred years of fighting
Not one Indian turned white and there are drums

“White Girl” is a La Farge song about the ill-fated love between a white girl and a Native American man. The girl declined to marry him because he was a Native American. The song also addresses the problems of alcohol among the Native Americans.

The album closes with “The Vanishing Race”, a song credited to Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton. Horton, Cash’s best friend and fishing buddy had died in a car crash four years before the release of this album. The song tells of a Native American viewing the future of his people

Oh, wagon trains rollin’ along
They fade from my visions and in time will be gone
I, I see an eagle in space
And my people will follow a vanishing race

Oh, now great spirits on high
Please spare them the sorrow you show to my eye
Now my blankets are roll
And I ride to the valley of the brave Navajo
And I ride to the valley of the brave Navajo
A vanishing Navajo

Bitter Tears reached #2 on Billboard’s country album charts and reached #47 on Bllboard’s all genres album chart. Although Columbia Records didn’t give either the album or single much promotional support, Cash promoted both ceaselessly, and would continue to support Native American causes throughout his life. Although Cash had no Native American blood in him (at one time he thought he might be part Cherokee), in 1966 Cash was adopted by the Seneca Nation’s Turtle Clan.

There are no up-tempo songs on this album and, other than “The Talking Leaves”, there are no really happy songs either. Despite that, this is my favorite Johnny Cash album, a thoroughly thoughtful and important endeavor on the part of Johnny Cash and his usual crew of the Carter Family and the Tennessee Three, augmented by ace musicians Norman Blake and Bob Johnson.

Grade: A+

5 responses to “Classic Album Review: Johnny Cash – ‘Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian’ (1964)

  1. Ken October 20, 2015 at 10:47 am

    Great review of a landmark album for Cash. The timing of that release coincided with the growing Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Native Americans had many of the same problems as African Americans but did not receive a similar level of attention in Cash’s eyes. His frustration with pop radio’s reticence to program the Ira Hayes single resulted in Cash placing a full page ad in Billboard Magazine. His passion and frustration is clearly evident in the text of his letter directed to pop DJ’s and programmers/mangers. The week that letter was printed Ira Hayes was at #15 and climbing on the COUNTRY survey. Ira Hayes never achieved enough pop airplay to chart in the Hot 100.

    Billboard Magazine August 22, 1964 – Page 31

    It is an astounding experience, the power that touches everyone who walks around the gigantic statue of the W.W. II flag-raising based on that classic picture from Iwo Jima. There are 5 marines and one Navy corpsman depicted in that bronze giant at Arlington national cemetery.

    I “chilled” like that recently, then went to Columbia Records and recorded “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes.”

    D.J.’s –station managers-owners, etc., where are your guts?

    (I know many of you “Top 40,” “Top 50,” or what-have you. So…..a few of you can disregard this “protest” and that is what it is.)

    I think that you do have “guts”….that you believe in something deep down.

    I’m not afraid to sing the hard, bitter lines that the son of Oliver La Farge wrote.

    (And pardon the dialect – mine is one of 500 or more in this land.)

    Still…actual sales on Ballad Of Ira Hayes are more than double the “Big Country Hit” sales average.

    Classify me, categorize me – STIFLE me, but it won’t work.

    I am fighting no particular cause. If I did, it would soon make me a sluggard. For as time changes, I change.

    This song is not of an unsung hero. The name Ira Hayes has been used and abused in every bar across the nation.

    These lyrics, I realize, take us back to the truth – as written by his cousin, Peter La Farge (son of the late Oliver La Farge…author and hard worker in the department of Indian Affairs, Washington D.C., until 2 years ago.

    You’re right! Teenage girls and Beatle-record buyers don’t want to hear this sad story of Ira Hayes – but who cries more easily, and who always go to sad movies to cry?
    Teenage girls.

    Some of you “Top Forty” D.J.’s went all out for this at first. Thanks anyway. Maybe the program director or station manager will reconsider.

    This ad (go ahead and call it that) costs like hell. Would you, or those pulling the strings for you, go to the mike with a new approach? That is, listen again to the record?

    Yes, I cut records to try for “sales.” Another word we could use is “success.”

    Regardless of the trade charts – the categorizing, classifying and restrictions of air play, this is not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason though for the gutless to give it thumbs down.

    “Ballad Of Ira Hayes” is strong medicine. So is Rochester – Harlem – Birmingham and Vietnam.

    In closing – at the Newport Folk Festival this month I visited with many, many “folk” singers – Peter, Paul & Mary, Theodore Bikel, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan (to drop a few names) and Pete Seeger.

    I was given 20 minutes on their Saturday nite show (thanks to Mr. John Hammond, pioneer for Columbia by way of A/R).

    The Ballad Of Ira Hayes stole my part of the show. And we all know that the audience (of near 20,000) were not “country” or hillbillies. They were an intelligent cross-section of American youth – and middle age.

    I’ve blown my horn now, just this once, then no more. Since I’ve said these things now, I find myself not caring if the record is programmed or not. I won’t ask you to cram it down their throats.

    But as an American who is almost a half-breed Cherokee-Mohawk (and who knows what else?) – I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of “Ira Hayes.”

    Just one question: WHY???

    (signed) Johnny Cash

    Note: at the bottom of the letter is printed:


  2. luckyoldsun October 20, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    “It says much about the stature Cash already had as an artist that Columbia allowed him to release as noncommercial an album as Bitter Tears.”

    Seems to me that in that era, a country album did not require a huge investment by the record label. Core artists of the time would release several albums a year and they were allowed to put out albums that were geared to be part of the artist’s long term catalogue and not necessarily to be current hits. Didn’t Buck Owens put out an instrumental album? Haggard put out albums dedicated to Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell.
    Also, it wasn’t like everybody had a stereo hi-fi 33 rpm lp record player in the early ’60s. That was a largely urban/suburban phenomenon. And deep-catalog lp record stores were mostly in big population centers. Cash’s Columbia albums like this one probably targeted his urban folk fan base as much as anything else.

    • Ken October 20, 2015 at 9:39 pm

      Where do you get your misinformation? The inaccurate conjecture that you post is astounding!

      Although the country music industry had a strong focus on singles due to heavy jukebox demand, albums also played a significant factor in the 1960’s. Back then albums did not sell in the quantities that they have in recent years but the top artists did move a significant amount of product. By the early 1960’s most folks DID have record players that would play both 45’s and LP’s. However in many areas of the U.S. country albums were often available at more retail locations than singles. Most regions had at least one or two record stores that carried country product. Discount department store chains were expanding in almost every region with record departments that featured a robust selection of country product – usually LP’s – that made them more accessible to consumers. The introduction of 8-track tapes in the mid-60’s brought portability and a new format to sell country albums through retail outlets as well as truck stops. An enormous pipeline for product was in place and Nashville used it to their advantage. But the really BIG money came from sales to the mainstream pop audience so whenever there was an opportunity to tap that market Nashville took advantage.

      No record label releases albums that they believe will not sell well. That would make NO business sense. That’s why it’s called the record BUSINESS. Buck Owens’ band The Buckaroos did indeed release several albums that sold rather well as did Merle Haggard’s Strangers. Haggard’s Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills tribute albums were both best-selling albums and among his most popular releases so I don’t get your point. [Haggard never recorded a complete Lefty Frizzell tribute LP]

      By 1964 Cash already had core country fans as his primary audience and was looking to further expand his appeal. But he was not doing so by abandoning country fans for an “urban folk fan base.” Cash was smart enough to not alienate those that made up his base.

      I took Paul’s comment regarding “Bitter Tears” being a non-commercial album to mean that because it was a concept album and dealt with controversial topics the sales potential was not seen as equal to Cash’s earlier efforts. Columbia knew that any Cash album was always guaranteed to sell a certain number of units to his core fans so they would likely not lose money on the project. However the unique content might limit it’s appeal so the label might not realize as much revenue as they could have gotten from a more mainstream project. But Cash was able to convince the suits to put the album out because…….well because he’s Johnny Cash!

  3. J H in Texas March 5, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    I just finished the new Cash biography and learned, probably, more than I needed to. One thing I found out that, according to the author, LaFarge was not Native American.

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