After releasing his chart-topping I Walk the Line in 1964, Johnny Cash recorded Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. Cash used to say he was part Cherokee but eventually admitted he wasn’t. Neverthless, Bitter Tears was an early and heartfelt attempt to translate the history and problems of Native Americans into musical form, drums and all. In A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, writer Antonino D’Ambrosio discusses Cash’s album in the context of the early-sixties social-justice movement, the folk-music and protest-song creators who spread their message, and the ongoing artistic and personal struggles of the Man in Black Himself.
In an interview with Sarah Jaffe, D’Ambrosio (who also wrote Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer ) disusses how Cash’s personal demons may have contributed to Bitter Tears.
I think that he was a person in pain. The agony that he felt in his life never left him. The movie makes it seem like he kicked drugs, which never happened. He had moments that lasted a month or two, but Marshall Grant, the bass player from the Tennessee Two, who told me that he never kicked them. That’s also a disservice.
The fact that he did this while he was dealing with his own personal agony, and that was being reflected back in the work about the tormented Native people–I think you can’t have one without the other. I think that’s an important thing, because the sincerity, the authenticity that Johnny Cash had, in all his music but particularly Bitter Tears, is very important. It separates a great artist from an average musician.
Here’s Cash singing the album’s best-known song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”: