Fundraising / Offer
Fiji Water & Vatukoula
New Culture Wars?
Factory Like a City
Bruce E. Levine
Until Jesus Comes
Zaps - 11-09
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
A Heartbeat and a Guitar
Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears
Book by Antonino D'Ambrosio; Nation Books, 2009, 288 pp.
It's hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed in "Shuttin' Detroit Down," a song released in April by country music sensation John Rich—one half of the multi-platinum duo Big & Rich. In the bare-bones composition, the singer blends sorrow and outrage into a powerful mix directed against bankers and executives running off with our tax money as ordinary folks lose homes and jobs. There's one problem: Rich chose to debut the song on the nightly show of his "good friend," Fox News's Glenn Beck, and its release was scheduled to coincide with Rick Santelli's venomous anti-tax "tea parties."
What's the lesson here? Merely that context counts. Not only did Rich's song lend credibility to the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing "populism" of Fox News, he bolstered country music's long-standing image as the chosen music of backward, everything-phobic "rednecks." Believe it or not, that image hasn't always been accurate.
It's here that Antonino D'Ambrosio's new book comes in handy. A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is a passionate and painstaking portrait of one of country's greatest legends—and the album that launched him into the center of a controversy.
By the early 1960s, Cash had become a superstar in popular music. In less than a decade, the son of poor Tennessee sharecroppers had gone from an artist with gospel ambitions to one of a handful representing the intersection between country, folk, and the burgeoning genre of rock 'n' roll. Record companies saw him as a golden boy.
And yet Cash, far from feeling liberated by fame, felt hemmed in. One of his reasons for parting ways with Sam Phillips's Sun Records in favor of Columbia was that he felt the latter to be a place that provided more creative freedom. Cash had been raised on some of the best traditions of American music, songs that personified a stark reality of work, struggle, and hope—Merle Travis, the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie. These were the artists whose legacies Cash hoped to continue.
Bitter Tears is an often-overlooked album. In a recent interview, D'Ambrosio points out "most of the biographies on him have one paragraph on it or a page maybe. But it's funny because in all the research I did, Bitter Tears is one of two or three albums that he always said were his favorite and best. "
Released in October 1964, Bitter Tears was met with immense hostility from the record industry and country music establishment. Radio stations refused to play songs from it. The irony today is that the album contains what is possibly one of the best-known songs in all of Cash's repertoire, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes."
Hayes, an indigenous Pima, is himself immortalized as one of the four Marines photographed raising the Stars and Stripes after the battle of Iwo Jima during WWII. But, as the song shows, his story was far from one of triumph. Initially coming home to a hero's welcome, Hayes was soon reminded that he had fought for a country that hated him. His own demons became too much to bear and he was found dead at the age of 32, having drank himself to death on the Gila River Reservation ten years after Iwo Jima.
The plight of Native peoples like Hayes was a deep concern for Cash (who claimed Cherokee ancestry) and this theme runs through every song on Bitter Tears. In his book, D'Ambrosio weaves together the stories of the myriad figures and groups that influenced the album's content—both directly and indirectly.
The list of people isn't just the early figures of country music, but radicals and subversives that might shock even the most learned Cash fan—in particular, the Greenwich Village folk scene. The people and art that emanated from this small section of New York City would have a profound effect on countless musicians of the decade, including Johnny Cash.
D'Ambrosio spends an ample amount of space divulging details of Cash's connection with the Village scene. Of particular note is the relationship to a young Bob Dylan. The two were much more than casual acquaintances. As the author chronicles, Cash had such respect and affection for the young folksinger that he was one of the few to stand up for him after his notorious electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Then there was Peter La Farge, a Navy veteran who spent years as something of a wandering soul before settling in the Village. Son of Native rights advocate and writer Oliver La Farge, Peter and Johnny Cash shared a lot in common. Both were steadfast on putting meaning into their songs and fought tooth and nail with record companies for their right to do so. Also, both struggled with an addiction to pills.
The mistreatment of Native peoples stirred both of them to absolute outrage. When the two met in May 1962—after Cash's disastrous, Dexedrine-fueled appearance at Carnegie Hall—they connected immediately. "Johnny Cash loved him," says D'Ambrosio, "and in the short time they spent together he was incredibly inspired by La Farge." Of the eight songs that would appear on Bitter Tears, La Farge wrote five, including "The Ballad of Ira Hayes."
In some ways, A Heartbeat and a Guitar is just as much a biography of Peter La Farge as it is a story about Johnny Cash. This is certainly not to the author's discredit, because despite his important contribution to the history of folk and protest music, La Farge largely remains a footnote today. His death in 1965 contributes to his present-day obscurity.
Just as important as the stories of the people in A Heartbeat and a Guitar are the stories of what was happening around them. D'Ambrosio steers clear of the tired formula of music biographies that tend to portray their subjects in a vacuum. As the author traces the development of Cash's career and music, the reader gets a sense of the Civil Rights movement, the McCarthy-ite hangover that still plagued much of the U.S., and the burgeoning movement for Native rights.
Cash had long been at odds with record labels over his content. While Columbia put pressure on him to be a pop star, the singer couldn't help but be moved by what was going on around him. Making an album like Bitter Tears certainly didn't ingratiate him with the big-wigs. D'Ambrosio makes the case that, "It was hard to be a vocal supporter of Civil Rights—this is 1964. To even go a step beyond that and support Native people—there's a lot of bravery and courage in that."
After radio stations refused to play "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," Cash reached into his own pocket to pay for a full-page letter in Billboard magazine lashing out at the "gutless" music establishment that refused to let artists relate to the world around them. "'Ira Hayes' is strong medicine," he said in the letter, "so is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam."
The censorship that Bitter Tears encountered prevented it from gaining the acclaim Cash's previous work had garnered. This might account for its present diminished status among his massive catalogue. To those in the Native American rights movement, however, the album was of great importance. Dennis Banks is quoted in the book as saying, "Cash's album is one of the earliest and most significant statements on behalf of Native people and our issues."
Johnny Cash could have played the role of the compliant country star, bowing to what the establishment expected of him: shut up and sing. But then, that wouldn't have made him into the Johnny Cash so widely admired today. A Heartbeat and a Guitar makes the case that his work is intimately intertwined with his deep sense of social conscience. The brewing storm of the 1960s gave that conscience—and his will to test the limits of what was acceptable—the room to thrive.
If nothing else, this book can help bring attention to an incredibly important album that has yet to receive its due. Bitter Tears is a testament to what happens when the boundaries between art and politics are broken down. As D'Ambrosio says, "This is the truest representation of Johnny Cash. He tried to do something different and say something different. And I think that really, that's what good art is about."
Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer, and activist, is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts. His work has appeared on ZNet, SocialistWorker.org, MR Zine, CounterPunch, and PopMatters.com.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.