"In July 1972, musician Johnny Cash sat opposite President Richard Nixon in the White House's Blue Room. As a horde of media huddled a few feet away, the country music superstar had come to discuss prison reform with the self-anointed leader of America's "silent majority." "Johnny, would you be willing to play a few songs for us," Nixon asked Cash. "I like Merle Haggard's 'Okie From Muskogee' and Guy Drake's 'Welfare Cadillac.'" The architect of the GOP's Southern strategy was asking for two famous expressions of white working-class resentment.
"I don't know those songs," replied Cash, "but I got a few of my own I can play for you." Dressed in his trademark black suit, his jet-black hair a little longer than usual, Cash draped the strap of his Martin guitar over his right shoulder and played three songs, all of them decidedly to the left of "Okie From Muskogee." With the nation still mired in Vietnam, Cash had far more than prison reform on his mind. Nixon listened with a frozen smile to the singer's rendition of the explicitly antiwar "What Is Truth?" and "Man in Black" ("Each week we lose a hundred fine young men") and to a folk protest song about the plight of Native Americans called "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." It was a daring confrontation with a president who was popular with Cash's fans and about to sweep to a crushing reelection victory, but a glimpse of how Cash saw himself -- a foe of hypocrisy, an ally of the downtrodden. An American protest singer, in short, as much as a country music legend.
Years later, "Man in Black" is remembered as a sartorial statement, and "What Is Truth?" as a period piece, if at all. Of the three songs that Cash played for Nixon, the most enduring, and the truest to his vision, was "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." The song was based on the tragic tale of the Pima Indian war hero who was immortalized in the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, and in Washington's Iwo Jima monument, but who died a lonely death brought on by the toxic mixture of alcohol and indifference and alcoholism. The song became part of an album of protest music that his record label didn't want to promote and that radio stations didn't want to play, but that Cash would always count among his personal favorites.
The story of Cash and "Ira Hayes" began a decade before the meeting with Nixon. On the night of May 10, 1962, Cash made a much-anticipated New York debut at Carnegie Hall. But instead of impressing the cognoscenti, Cash, who had begun struggling with drug addiction, bombed. His voice was hoarse and hard to hear, and he left the stage in what he described as a "deep depression." Afterward, he consoled himself by heading downtown with a folksinger friend to hear some music at Greenwich Village's Gaslight Café.
Onstage was protest balladeer Peter La Farge, performing "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." A former rodeo cowboy, playwright, actor and Navy intelligence operative, La Farge was also the son of longtime Native activist and novelist Oliver La Farge, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1930 Navajo love story, "Laughing Boy." The younger La Farge had carved out an intriguing niche in the New York folk revival scene by devoting himself to a single issue. "Pete was doing something special and important," recalls folksinger Pete Seeger. "His heart was so devoted to the Native American cause at a time that no one was really saying anything about it. I think he went deeper than anyone before or since.""
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The bitter tears of Johnny Cash