January 10, 2008

Interview with Johnny Cash

Returning to the living roomIn the winter of 1991, I got to sit down and talk with Johnny Cash. I was an entertainment writer for the Calgary Herald then, but the way I got to speak with him wasn't because of that. It was because I was a Native person. I wrote cultural columns for Native papers and I'd sent the record company reps a handful of them and asked to talk to John. He read them and agreed.

See, Johnny Cash had always been concerned with the lives of Native people. In 1964, he'd recorded an eight-song album called "Bitter Tears (The Ballad of the American Indian)." That ballad was a sad one, John had said, and the songs reflected that. It contained "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," "Drums" and "The Vanishing Race," powerful songs aimed at directing the listener to the plight of the red man in contemporary North America.

It never took off. Few people have ever heard those songs except for the Hayes tune. But John was never far from the edges of the lines of support for the cause of Native rights. When he read my pieces, he wanted to talk informally, off the record, to meet a Native Canadian writer, to learn more about the Native experience in this country.
What they talked about:Eventually, he turned the questions inward. He asked me how I felt about all of those issues. He asked me how it felt to be in my skin every day. He asked me what dreams I had for myself and how hard they might be to realize as a Native person in Canada. And he asked me what I would change about myself if I could.

Then we talked about ceremony and spirituality. We talked of sweat lodges, Sun dances, sacred pipes and prayer songs. We talked about the land and how allowing it to seep inside you, inhabit you, become you is such a transcendent experience that the spirituality of it is nearly impossible to express. He was an Indian, Johnny Cash, if not in blood then in sentiment and spirit.

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