Cash’s lost treasure

“It’s the only record he made that dealt with one social issue,’’ says Antonino D’Ambrosio of Johnny Cash’s “Bitter Tears.’’ “It’s the only record he made that dealt with one social issue,’’ says Antonino D’Ambrosio of Johnny Cash’s “Bitter Tears.’’
By James Reed
Globe Staff / December 8, 2009

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In 1963, with the blare of Mariachi-style horns over that signature locomotive guitar part, Johnny Cash had the biggest hit of his career with “Ring of Fire.’’ But then he followed it up the next year with what remains his most controversial release, “Bitter Tears,’’ a concept album about the struggles of Native Americans at a time when they were being lumped into the Civil Rights movement.

With just eight songs (including the hit “The Ballad of Ira Hayes’’), the album stands as a forgotten classic of Cash’s discography. The story behind its making - and, more important, its cultural resonance - piqued the interest of Antonino D’Ambrosio, a filmmaker and writer who had previously written a book about the Clash’s Joe Strummer.

With his latest, “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears’’ (Nation Books), D’Ambrosio offers a fascinating account of how that album embodied the true grit of Cash’s courage and conviction. D’Ambrosio, who grew up loving punk and rap, says he came to Cash through his latter-day recordings with Rick Rubin before stumbling onto the album that he now considers a “great window into an unknown history of the United States.’’


Q. “Bitter Tears’’ certainly isn’t the first album people associate with Cash. What impressed you about it?

A. When I discovered this record, it blew me away. It breaks away from the calcified myth of Johnny Cash as the Man in Black, Folsom Prison, all that stuff. I think the album reflects who he was as a very complex and deeply flawed human being who really cared about the human condition. It’s the only record he made that dealt with one social issue, and I think that says something. And, of course, it was at the height of his career and he risked everything.

Q. In your research, what did you learn about Native Americans’ feelings about this album?

A. Every Native activist and scholar that I interviewed was very impressed and supportive of the record. They told me they thought the record was incredibly important and that in many ways it helped galvanize a movement. And 45 years later, I don’t know anyone at the level of Johnny Cash who’s done anything about Native issues like this album.

Q. You make a strong case that this is one of Cash’s most important yet widely overlooked albums. How has its reputation evolved over the years?

A. It’s still essentially unknown. No one knows the record, and I’m talking about sophisticated and highly educated musicians, too. And that’s the product of what I call the quiet campaign of censorship - [the establishment] just ignored the album when it came out. But to me, this is what should be uplifted about Johnny Cash, but more as a model for what art can be. The greatest pursuit of art is telling the truth, and that’s what he did.

Interview was condensed and edited.

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