When we talk about Cash's music standing in solidarity with oppressed or marginalized groups I think the best place to start is with Bitter Tears and the tragedy of Native Americans in the United States.
Cash was troubled by the experience of the Native American. So he recorded Bitter Tears to give voice to this tragedy and to throw a light on how our history books have conveniently swept the genocide of Native Americans under the rug.
Given the content of the album Bitter Tears wasn't going to set any sales records. Cash struggled to get anyone to play the songs on the radio. Cash attributed the lack of airplay to moral cowardice and racism.
The album does contain strong stuff. Bitter Tears sounds like it came straight out of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the Untied States. On the album Cash revisits American history, only this time reading history from the perspective of the Native American rather than that of the White man.
For example, Bitter Tears starts off with the song "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow." The song recounts the loss of Seneca nation land in Pennsylvania due to the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the early 1960s. The song begins with the treaty and promises made by the US government giving that land to the Seneca nation. The treaty signed by George Washington gave the land to the Seneca nation forever: "for as long as the grass shall grow and the moon shall rise." But forever really wasn't forever. The treaty was broken, like so many of the treaties signed by the US government with the various Native American nations.
The most shocking song on Bitter Tears is "Custer," a Native American recounting of the death of General Custer at Little Bighorn. The refrain of the song delights in the death of Custer by gloating "the General he don't ride well anymore." The song speaks to how the victors are the ones write the history books: "It's not called an Indian victory but a bloody massacre." And the song ends by taking delight in how Custer's flowing blond hair got scalped:
General George A. Custer, oh his yellow hair had lustreAnd you'll have to listen to the song to hear how Cash chortles with delight when singing about Custer getting scalped. In this song is Cash giving voice to Native American rage. "Custer" is an imprecatory psalm, like Psalm 137:
But the General he don't ride well anymore
For now the General's silent, he got barbered violent
And the General he don't ride well anymore
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and weptThe lament and rage continue in the song "Apache Tears," a song recounting the horrors of the US government forcibly removing Native Americans from their land and marching them to reservations. Thousands died on these "trails of tears." One verse from "Apache Tears" recounts an Indian woman raped to death by drunken soldiers:
when we remembered Zion.
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Dead grass, dry roots, hunger crying in the nightI bet you are starting to see why Bitter Tears didn't get much radio airplay.
Ghost of broken hearts and laws are here
And who saw the young squaw, they judged by their whiskey law
Tortured till she died of pain and fear
Where the soldiers lay her back, are the black Apache tears
The most famous song of Bitter Tears is "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." Ira Hayes, a Native American, was one of the five Marines who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima, captured in the iconic photograph. But like so many Native American men, Ira Hayes succumbed to alcoholism upon his return to the States. Ira Hayes, veteran and American hero, died lying in a ditch from exposure and alcohol poisoning.
Finally, the song "White Girl" tells an intimate story about how racism is tied up with sex, romance and marriage. A "white girl" toys around with a Native American man, treating him like an exotic plaything and showpiece. But he really falls in love and proposes marriage. She rejects him on racial grounds. It was fun while it lasted, but it never was in the cards. What was he thinking? A "white girl" would never marry an Indian:
She took me to her partiesSuch are the songs on Bitter Tears, one of Johnny Cash's most courageous albums. Bitter Tears was never going to sell a lot of records, but it stands out for its conviction and conscience. Bitter Tears is an album that speaks about tragedy, suffering and injustice across the spectrum of the Native American experience. This was Johnny Cash trying to give voice to that suffering and prick the conscience of his nation.
She carried me around
And I was a proud one
The tallest man in town
Well, when she came to leave me
She took me by the arm
And she said, she loved me
And would not do me harmBut she would not marry
Not an Indian she said
She thanked me for my offer
And I wished that I was dead
Through these songs Johnny Cash tried to draw our hearts and minds toward the bitter tears we had caused, ignored and forgotten.
Part 5: San Quentin You've Been Living Hell to Me