Op-Ed: Johnny Cash’s ‘Bitter Tears’ Is a Playbook for Using Privilege for Good
On Oct. 26, 1964, Johnny Cash released an album to very little fanfare -- odd, given that he was coming off the success of I Walk the Line, released that June, which had set him on a trajectory to his music legend status.
The album was Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. Back then, country radio wouldn’t play it, and his label, Columbia, wouldn’t market it -- and 56 years later, not much has changed in the industry or in the fight for Native rights.
Bitter Tears, which tells the stories of the atrocities and tragedies faced by Native people in the United States, is largely left out of discussions of Cash's discography, and if it was released tomorrow, country radio probably still wouldn’t play it, despite Cash’s place firmly atop the country music canon. The Man in Black's prison concerts may have cemented his status as an outlaw country icon, but Bitter Tears is the real reason he should be remembered in that vein.
In 2020, Bitter Tears is more relevant than ever: The novel coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected Native communities, and Native people have been fighting to protect their land and regain control over the land they lost since the first settlers arrived in what is now known as the United States. And while the Supreme Court ruled in July that half of Oklahoma is a Native reservation, by October, the Environmental Protection Agency had given the state environmental control over much of that same land. Indeed, the themes Cash sings about on Bitter Tears are still alive and well today.
When Cash released “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the first single from Bitter Tears that details the true story of Ira Hayes, a Marine of Pima descent who is pictured in the now-iconic photograph of soldiers raising the American flag at Iwo Jima during World War II, Cash had to buy copies of the single and send it to radio stations himself. He took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine calling radio DJs “gutless” for not playing it. He fought for this record and, as he points out in the ad, the song sold “more than double the ‘Big Country Hit’ average” despite no radio support.
Cash said he was inspired to make Bitter Tears because he saw parallels in how Native people and Black people were treated in the 1960s. The difference was, as Native author and activist John Trudell puts it in Antonino D’Ambrosio’s book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, Black Americans were fighting for (and continue to fight for) civil rights, while Native people were fighting for treaties to be upheld. Every treaty a tribe has made with the United States has been broken or violated in some way.
Bitter Tears was a way for Cash to use his privilege as a white man with a platform for good. Growing up poor in Arkansas, living side by side with Native populations there, Cash saw that opportunities for help and advancement through government programs that were available to his white family weren’t made available to the Native people he knew.
The record, and Cash’s fire behind promoting it himself, is a master class in how to use privilege as a way to give a voice to the voiceless. But why is it so controversial to make a record pointing out the violent and unjust history of a marginalized group of people, and why is country music, specifically, so hesitant to tackle these topics?
D’Ambrosio, who literally wrote the book and made the film on Bitter Tears, believes it’s because it makes people uncomfortable, and we, as humans, don’t like to feel that way. But in a genre that’s so focused on its roots and tradition, and in a country that's just as divided as when Bitter Tears was released, it’s hypocritical to ignore an album that goes back to the original roots of this country.
“Country music is about loss, loneliness, love, and you merge that with feeling like you’re part of a group of people that are not really represented in the larger scope of society [so people] settle into a more reactionary pose around it,” D’Ambrosio says. “Cash is trying to say, actually if you feel this way, the way to go is a much more progressive way: finding commonality with people that are also suffering. To me, that’s the bedrock of democracy, that you find solidarity with the other people who are suffering.”
Cash’s belief in this ideal, despite the fact that country radio wouldn’t entertain it, truly proves his outlaw mindset. He used his voice to amplify the voices of those who had long been silenced, despite the cost to him personally.
Some country artists continue to uphold that ideal today, with much the same result: Jason Isbell has noted how fans have walked out or taken “bathroom breaks” at shows during his song "White Man's World," or typed angry tweets about it. Mickey Guyton has been speaking her truth about being a Black country singer for years, and has been largely ignored by country radio. And, of course, there’s the Chicks' career trajectory after March of 2003.
But artists are a prominent line of defense against forgetting about the past, and Bitter Tears is one of those pieces of art that begs us to consider the origins of the violence and division in this country so that we’re not doomed to keep repeating it. We cannot move forward with any kind of social justice or civil rights initiative if we don’t first look back on how we got here. Without considering the violence committed against Native people, trying to find common ground and progress will be a lot like trying to bail out a sinking cruise ship with a mop bucket.
That's why Bitter Tears was so important during the protests and fight for civil rights going on when it was released in 1964 ... and why it was still relevant when Cash played “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for then-president Richard Nixon at the White House in 1972, when Nixon had requested that Cash cover Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee" ... and why it’s still relevant today, when the COVID-19 pandemic is creating even more disparity between white people and Black people, Native people and other people of color; the federal government has launched what amounts to an assault on Native land; and Native people’s main avenue to be heard, voting, is often suppressed.
This is Cash’s legacy: a call to action, to use your place of privilege and your voice to fight for what improves the lives of your neighbors. His fight for Native people was largely forgotten once his next record came out, but Cash continued to play songs from Bitter Tears at live shows, despite them not being “hits.”
It’s a long game and a long fight, but Cash thought it was worth it. As D’Ambrosio put it, “Cash represents, even in all his flaws, the potential of what Americans can be.”
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