Wednesday, February 24, 2016

We’re Still Here: Johnny Cash’s “Bitter Tears” Revisited (Gigantic Films, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After “Chasing Heroin” KPBS showed a quirky 2015 film called — to give it its full title — We’re Still Here: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, though the KPBS Web site listed it only as Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears. Bitter Tears was a concept album Cash made for Columbia, his long-time record label, in 1964, part of his “Americana” series, that contained eight songs about America’s historic mistreatment, verging on genocide, of its Native population. (The album’s full title was Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.) The inspiration of the film was a re-recording of the Bitter Tears material in 2014 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original album, called Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, featuring modern alternative-country artists like Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, the Milk Carton Kids, Steve Earle, Nancy Blake, Kris Kristofferson (who has every reason to be grateful to Johnny Cash because Cash’s recording of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” launched Kristofferson’s own career), Rhiannon Giddens (an utterly fascinating singer who, like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, is part African-American and part Native American, and who added a new verse to the song “The Vanishing Race” by Cash and Johnny Horton to indicate that America’s Native people haven’t “vanished” — despite our best efforts to get rid of them — but are still very much here, alive and part of our culture) and Norman Blake, the only person who played on Cash’s Bitter Tears album who was still alive in 2014. For some reason KPBS’s Web site on this show said Cash’s album was “lost” — which might make you think it was either never completed or never released, or if it had been released has been out of print for years — yet it’s currently available on CD ( lists it and I’m sure many other online retailers do too) and, contrary to the hype, it was a success at the time.

Cash was discouraged enough at radio programmers for refusing to play the album’s single — “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a shattering account of the Native American among the six Marines who raised the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in what became one of the most iconic photos of World War II, only to find when he got home that he was still the victim of anti-Native discrimination; he responded by drinking himself into an early grave — that he took out a full-page ad in Billboard magazine in the form of an open letter to his record label and the radio stations asking, “Where are your guts?” Yet “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” got played on enough stations and sold enough copies that it reached #3 on the Billboard country charts, and the album as a whole reached #2. For a film that was only an hour long, the movie did an awful lot of rambling, touching on the controversy over Bitter Tears and Cash’s response to it (though she didn’t participate in the re-recordings, Cash’s daughter Rosanne, a country-music star in her own right, was interviewed extensively), showing footage of the re-recordings and offering background on Cash’s unseen collaborator, Native American singer-songwriter Peter LaFarge, who wrote “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and four of the other songs on the album. (Bitter Tears featured eight songs — relatively short for a 1960’s LP — of which LaFarge wrote five, Cash wrote two, and the last was a collaboration between Cash and Johnny Horton.) In some ways, Bitter Tears can be compared to Tim McCoy’s remarkable and awesome film from 1932, End of the Trail, in which McCoy, a long-time star of “B” Westerns who had also participated in an oral history project in the Dakotas in the 1920’s, interviewing survivors of the battle of the Little Big Horn (on the Native side, the side that had survivors), made a film that not only sympathized with the Native struggle to keep their land but presented the whole sorry history of the U.S. government’s dealings with them, including all the solemn treaties the U.S. had made with Native tribes and then broken, often barely after the ink on them had dried. Both End of the Trail and Bitter Tears are remarkable works by white people who identified with the Native Americans and their rights, and while McCoy’s film doesn’t seem to have aroused any particular controversy, Bitter Tears did — it was at a time when the country-music industry, centered around Nashville, Tennessee, was essentially circling the wagons and establishing itself as the last redoubt of old-time American values in music while other forms, particularly folk music (and, later in the 1960’s, rock), were embracing progressive values in general and civil rights in particular.

Cash actually said that part of his inspiration for Bitter Tears was seeing the African-American civil rights struggle render the centuries of oppression of Black people visible to white Americans who hadn’t thought about it before, and he felt it was time to do the same for the oppression of Native Americans as well. (It reminded me of the interview I read in the 1970’s with film director Don Siegel, who in 1960 made Flaming Star, a quite good pro-Native Western with Elvis Presley as a half-white, half-Native hero; Siegel recalled that people were coming up to him and asking if he’d made a film about the oppression of Native Americans as a metaphor for the oppression of Black Americans, and he’d say, “No, I made a film about the oppression of Native Americans because I wanted to make a point about the oppression of Native Americans.”) Apparently at the time Cash made Bitter Tears he thought he might be part-Native himself, though later he did genealogical research on himself and found all his traceable ancestors had been Scotch, Irish or German. One thing that really shocked me was that the opening song on the album, “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” wasn’t about a broken treaty from the 19th century but one that had been broken as late as 1961 under the administration of President John F. Kennedy, which authorized construction of a dam in upstate New York even though that would flood the reservation of the Senecas, one of the Six Nations in the Iroquois Confederation, whose treaty guaranteeing them that land in perpetuity had been signed 175 years earlier by President George Washington and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. (The documentary included footage of the Senecas’ homes and farms being bulldozed or burned to make room for the dam, as well as a news clipping announcing that since the construction of the dam the land formerly occupied by the Senecas had become a major tourist attraction.) I can’t watch shows about the U.S.’s genocidal treatment of its Native population without recalling Adolf Hitler’s comment when Edward R. Murrow interviewed him: “I don’t know why you Americans make such a fuss about the Jews. I’m only doing to the Jews what you did to the Indians.” And he was doing it for the same reason, Lebensraum — to clear the land of a supposedly “inferior” population so there would be more room for a self-proclaimed “Master Race.”