A new generation of artists has revisited Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, the 1964 concept album from the late Johnny Cash:
You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard or even heard of Johnny Cash’s brilliant 1964 concept album, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It wasn’t one of his best sellers, though one of its key tracks, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, would become a fair-sized hit. Without knowing the album’s history, the more cynical among us might believe that it was released a decade later, as some kind of a cash-in on halfhearted environmentalism and a popular sense of civil rights. You might even think that it was a grasp at capturing a younger audience, one that was convinced that all of us have Native American blood coursing through our veins.
But this is a time when the cynics suffer defeat, as the record’s history and its contents reveal more about Cash’s character and artistry and, alternately, the album’s prescience. Fifty years on controversy still surrounds relationships between Native and white cultures, something a new version of Bitter Tears (titled Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited) , featuring contemporary acts such as Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and the Milk Carton Kids covering the album in full, is sure to highlight.
Issuing the album with a new cast rather than simply redressing the original is a wise one. Though we’re told that the Cash family archives are seemingly unlimited, the onslaught of releases in the late master’s name over the last decade-plus has caused a kind of Cash fatigue for some. Moreover, this recasting, featuring turns from Emmylou Harris and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops highlights how the plight of Native Americans continues, despite the hopes and dreams of the American Indian movement. The original, though, holds an interesting place in the Cash cannon and lore.
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When the Man in Black Went to Bat for Native America
(Pop Matters 7/31)