The untold story of Johnny Cash, protest singer and Native American
activist, and his feud with the music industry
By Antonino D'Ambrosio
Nov 8, 2009
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
"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."
Cash never pretended that music could stay immune from social, but he
tried his best to "not mix in politics." Instead he talked about the
things that unite us like the dignity of honest work. "If you were a
baker," he told writer Christopher Wren in 1970, "and you baked a
loaf of bread and it fed somebody, then your life has been
worthwhile. And if you were a weaver, and you wove some cloth and
your cloth kept somebody warm, your life has been worthwhile."
Raised in rural poverty on the margins of America, Cash empathized
with outsiders like convicts, the poor and Native Americans. But his
identification with Indians was especially deep -- even delusional.
During the depths of his early '60s drug abuse, he convinced himself,
and told others, that he was Native American himself, with both
Cherokee and Mohawk blood. (He would later recant this claim.)
At the Gaslight, once he had listened to "Ira Hayes' and La Farge's
other Indian protest tunes, including "As Long as the Grass Shall
Grow" and "Custer," Cash was hooked. "Johnny wanted more than the
hillbilly jangle," Peter La Farge would write later about meeting
Cash at the Gaslight. "He was hungry for the depth and truth heard
only in the folk field (at least until Johnny came along). The secret
is simple, Johnny has the heart of a folksinger in the purest sense."
In fact, Cash had written an Indian folk protest ballad of his own in
1957. "I wrote 'Old Apache Squaw,'" Cash later explained to Seeger.
"Then I forgot the so-called protest song for a while. No one else
seemed to speak up for the Indian with any volume or voice [until
Peter La Farge]."
Cash, like many in the 1960s, could see that everything that was
certain, rigid and hard was breaking apart. Social movements were
blossoming. But the thunderous American choir that was singing "We
Shall Overcome" and "We Shall All Be Free" drowned out the cry of the
loose-knit Native movement. As Martin Luther King and other leaders
steered their people toward legislative victories that would further
integrate them into a society they were locked out of, the rising
tide of Native youth activists wanted something different.
"In my mind, Native people could not have a civil rights movement,"
American Indian Movement activist and musician John Trudell says.
"The civil rights issue was between the blacks and the whites and I
never viewed it as a civil rights issue for us. They've been trying
to trick us into accepting civil rights but America has a legal
responsibility to fulfill those treaty law agreements. If you're
looking at civil rights, you're basically saying 'all right treat us
like the way you treat the rest of your citizens'. I don't look at
that as a climb up." Rather than pursue assimilation into the
American system, Native American activists wanted to maintain their
slipping grip on sovereignty and the little land they still possessed.
By the early '60s, the burgeoning National Indian Youth Council
(NIYC) was attempting to stake its own claim for their equal share of
justice. With the expansion of fishing treaty violations and the
breach of two major land treaties that led to the loss of thousands
of acres of tribal land in upstate New York for the Tuscarora and
Allegany Seneca (the story behind La Farge's "As Long as the Grass
Shall Grow"), the NIYC, led by Native activists like Hank Adams,
responded by adapting the sit-in protest. Rechristened as the
"fish-in," the NIYC disputed the denial of treaty rights by fishing
in defiance of state law. Fish-ins were held in New York and the
The fish-in tactic worked in helping build some public support, but
it did little to stop the treaty violations. Instead, the U.S.
government ramped up its efforts to crush any momentum the Native
movement was building. Oftentimes their tactics were brutal and
violent. "This was the time of Selma and there was a lot of unrest in
the nation," remembers Bill Frank Jr. of Washington state's Nisqually
tribe. "Congress had funded some big law enforcement programs and
they got all kinds of training and riot gear-shields, helmets. And
they got fancy new boats. These guys had a budget. This was a war."
By 1964, the Native American cause had attracted the interest of
another celebrity. On March 2 the NIYC gained national attention as
actor Marlon Brando joined a Washington state fish-in. Already an
outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement, Brando's very
public support and subsequent arrest for catching salmon "illegally"
in Puyallup River helped to boost the Native movement. Brando's
involvement with the Native cause had begun when he contacted D'Arcy
McNickle after reading the Flathead Indian's book "The Surrounded," a
powerful novel depicting reservation life in 1936. Brando's
involvement in Native issues led to government surveillance that
lasted decades. His FBI file, bursting with memos detailing possible
means of silencing the actor, quickly grew to more than 100 pages.
Three days after Brando's arrest in Washington, Cash, fresh off the
biggest chart success of his career, the single "Ring of Fire," and
having just finished recording a very commercial album called "I Walk
the Line," began recording another, very different album. When Cash
left Sun Studios for Columbia in the late 1950s, he believed his
rising star would give him the creative capital to produce and record
something a little outside the pop and country mainstream -- albums
of folk music and live prison concerts. He was alternating folky
albums like "Blood Sweat and Tears," a celebration of the working
man, with commercial discs laden with radio-ready singles. "Ring of
Fire," which had reached No. 1 on the country charts and had crossed
over to pop, had bought him the permission of Columbia to make an
album of what he called "Indian protest songs."
In the two years since Cash had first met La Farge and listened to
"The Ballad of Ira Hayes," Cash had educated himself about Native
American issues. "John had really researched a lot of the history,"
Cash's longtime emcee Johnny Western recalled. "It started with Ira Hayes."
As Cash explained, "I dove into primary and secondary sources,
immersing myself in the tragic stories of the Cherokee and the
Apache, among others, until I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time
I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage."
But Cash felt a special kinship with Ira Hayes. Both men had served
in the military as a way to escape their lives of rural poverty
longing to create new opportunities. Plus, both suffered from
addiction problems; Cash and his pills and Hayes with alcohol. He
decided to anchor the album with "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." And since
the song had provided the spark for Cash's vision, it just felt right
that he should learn more about the song's subject.
Cash contacted Ira Hayes' mother and then visited her and her family
at the Pima reservation in Arizona. Before Cash left the Pima
Reservation, Hayes' mother presented him with a gift, a smooth black
translucent stone. The Pima call it an "Apache tear." The legend
behind the opaque volcanic black glass is rooted in the last U.S.
cavalry attack on Native people, which took place on Apaches in the
state of Arizona. After the slaughter, the soldiers refused to allow
the Apache women to put the dead up on stilts, a sacred Apache
tradition. Legend says that overcome by intense grief, Apache women
shed tears for the first time ever, and the tears that fell to the
earth turned black. Cash, moved by the gift, polished the stone and
mounted it on a gold chain.
With the Apache tear draped around his neck, Cash cut his protest
album. He recorded five of La Farge's songs, two of his own, and one
he'd co-written with Johnny Horton. All were Native American themed.
"When we went back into the studio to record what became 'Bitter
Tears,'" Cash bassist Marshall Grant says, "we could see that John
really had a special feeling for this record and these songs."
Yet the album's first single, "Ira Hayes," went nowhere. Few radio
stations would play the song. Was the length of the song, four
minutes and seven seconds, the problem? Radio stations liked
three-minute tracks. Or maybe disc jockeys wanted Cash to "entertain,
not educate," as one Columbia exec put it.
"I know that a lot of people into Johnny Cash weren't into 'Bitter
Tears,' " explains Dick Weissman, a folksinger, ex-member of the
Journeymen and friend of La Farge. "They wanted a 'Ballad of Teenage
Queen' not 'The Ballad of Ira Hayes.' They wanted 'Folsom Prison.'
They didn't want songs about how American's mistreated Indians."
The stations wouldn't play the song and Columbia Records refused to
promote it. According to John Hammond, the legendary producer and
Cash champion who worked at Columbia, executives at the label just
didn't think it had commercial potential. Billboard, the music
industry trade magazine, wouldn't review it, even though Cash was at
the height of his fame, and had just scored another No. 1 country
single with "Understand Your Man" and No. 1 country album with "I
Walk the Line."
One editor of a country music magazine demanded that Cash resign from
the Country Music Association because "you and your crowd are just
too intelligent to associate with plain country folks, country
artists and country DJs." Johnny Western, a DJ, singer and actor who
for many years was part of Cash's road show, recalls a conversation
with "a very popular and powerful DJ." According to Western, the DJ
was "connected to many of the music associations and other
influential recording industry groups. He had always been incredibly
supportive of John." Western and the DJ started discussing Cash's new
album and the "Ira Hayes" single. "He asked me why John did this
record. I told him that John and all of us had a great feeling for
the American Indian cause. He responded that he felt that the music,
in his mind, was un-American and that he would never play the record
on air and had strongly advised other DJs and radio stations to do
the same. Just ignore it until John came back to his senses, is what
he told me."
"When John was attacked for 'Ira Hayes' and then 'Bitter Tears,'"
explains Marshall Grant, "it just ripped him apart. Hayes was forced
to drink by the abuse and treatment of white people who used and
abandoned him. To us, it meant Hayes was being tortured and that's
the story we told and it's true."
When "Bitter Tears" and its single did not get the attention he felt
they deserved, Cash insisted on having the last word. He composed a
letter to the entire record industry and placed it in Billboard as a
full-page ad on Aug. 22, 1964.
"D.J.'s -- station managers -- owners, etc.," demanded Cash, "Where
are your guts?" He referred to his own supposed half Cherokee and
Mohawk heritage and spoke of the record as unvarnished truth. "These
lyrics take us back to the truth ... you're right! Teenage girls and
Beatle record buyers don't want to hear this sad story of Ira Hayes
... This song is not of an unsung hero." Cash slammed the record
industry for its cowardice, "Regardless of the trade charts -- the
categorizing, classifying and restrictions of air play, this not a
country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason though for
the gutless [Cash's emphasis] to give it a thumbs down."
Cash demanded that the industry explain its resistance to his single.
"I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid
of Ira Hayes. Just one question: WHY???" And then Cash answered for
them. "'Ira Hayes' is strong medicine ... So is Rochester, Harlem,
Birmingham and Vietnam."
As Cash later explained, "I talked about them wanting to wallow in
meaninglessness and their lack of vision for our music. Predictably
enough, it got me off the air in more places than it got me on." In
reality, however, as Cash noted in his letter, "Ira Hayes" was
already outselling many country hits. Ultimately, thanks in part to
aggressive promotion by Cash, who personally promoted the song to
disc jockeys he knew, "Ira Hayes" reached No. 3 on the country
singles charts, and "Bitter Tears" peaked at 2 on the album charts.
Later, long after "Bitter Tears," and after he'd won his battle with
drugs, Cash would dial back his claims of Indian ancestry. But he
never wavered from his support for the Native cause. He went on to
perform benefit shows on reservations -- including the Sioux
reservation at Wounded Knee in 1968, five years before the armed
standoff there between the FBI and the American Indian Movement -- to
help raise money for schools, hospitals and other critical resources
denied by the government. In 1980, Cash told a reporter: "We went to
Wounded Knee before Wounded Knee II [the 1973 standoff] to do a show
to raise money to build a school on the Rosebud Indian Reservation"
and do a movie for "Public Broadcasting System called 'Trail of
Tears.'" He joined with fellow musicians Kris Kristofferson, Willie
Nelson and Robbie Robertson to call for the release of jailed AIM
leader Leonard Peltier.
Since Cash first recorded "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" in 1964, many
musicians have recorded their own versions. Kris Kristofferson is one
of those musicians. He summed up the spirit behind Cash's now nearly
forgotten protest album in his eulogy for Cash, who died in 2003.
Cash, he said, was a "holy terror ... a dark and dangerous force of
nature that also stood for mercy and justice for his fellow human
beings." Four years before his famous concert at Folsom Prison, four
years before the American Indian Movement formed, and at the pinnacle
of his commercial success, Cash insisted on producing an
uncommercial, deeply personal protest record that was a close as he
could come to truth. He would always cherish it. "I'm still
particularly proud of 'Bitter Tears,'" Cash would say near the end of
his life, while talking about the topical music he recorded in the
1960s. "Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don't see much
reason to change my position today. The old are still neglected, the
poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and
we're not making any moves to make things right. There's still plenty
of darkness to carry off."
Antonino D'Ambrosio is the author of "A Heartbeat and a Guitar:
Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears."