Known to use music to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed, Johnny recorded “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian” in 1964. He was so perplexed with the natives’ tragic experiences in the USA that he thought of working on a concept album that will give voice to their cries.
What made his stand out from other Indian-themed songs was the way he recounts history from the perspectives of an American native. Consequently, the lyrics came out to be harsh and inhospitable to a white man. While a white man sings with politically correct terms pertaining to Indians, Cash, on the other hand, ignored reciprocation to the effort. He candidly sung the lyrics not as Johnny Cash, but as the voice of those who have suffered injustice and displacements.
Hence, let us examine some of the songs included in the said album.
As Long as the Grass Shall Grow
A tongue in cheek treaty signed by George Washington for the Seneca nation to reposes their land in Pennsylvania. The eloquent promises of “For as long as the grass grows and the moon shines” were just empty words. Not long, the treaty was broken. They’re just one among the other tribes who were disillusioned by the government’s promises and treaties.
Here, a Native American expresses his glee at the death of some General George Custer. Apparently, he was a loathed foe and his scalping was much deserved for the crimes committed against his people.
A recounting of the horrors of the ‘trail of tears’ where many Indians were forced out of their ancestral lands. The US government had them placed in reservations instead. What was heart-breaking was the abused and death of a young Native woman.
It resonates most to those who felt discrimination and a devaluing of their heritage by the acculturation of the natives by the white people.
This one’s a straight racism at play when a white woman toys on the naiveté of an Indian man who fell hard for her.
With such strong words, how could one expect that these songs be played on the radio? (At least not on a regular basis.) Frustrated with the cowardice of producers and DJs, Johnny worked hard to have Bitter Tears promoted and supported.
Hats off to you Ole Johnny Cash! Bet you knew that this album won’t sell million-dollar records. Still, you stood your ground of conviction.