My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Peter La Farge

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+