The untold story of Johnny Cash, protest singer and Native American activist, and his feud with the music industry
By Antonino D'Ambrosio
Raised in rural poverty on the margins of America, Cash empathized with outsiders like convicts, the poor and Native Americans. But his identification with Indians was especially deep—even delusional. During the depths of his early ’60s drug abuse, he convinced himself, and told others, that he was Native American himself, with both Cherokee and Mohawk blood. (He would later recant this claim.)
At the Gaslight, once he had listened to “Ira Hayes’ and La Farge’s other Indian protest tunes, including “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” and “Custer,” Cash was hooked. “Johnny wanted more than the hillbilly jangle,” Peter La Farge would write later about meeting Cash at the Gaslight. “He was hungry for the depth and truth heard only in the folk field (at least until Johnny came along). The secret is simple, Johnny has the heart of a folksinger in the purest sense.” In fact, Cash had written an Indian folk protest ballad of his own in 1957. “I wrote ‘Old Apache Squaw,’” Cash later explained to Seeger. “Then I forgot the so-called protest song for a while. No one else seemed to speak up for the Indian with any volume or voice [until Peter La Farge].”
As Cash explained, “I dove into primary and secondary sources, immersing myself in the tragic stories of the Cherokee and the Apache, among others, until I was almost as raw as Peter. By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage.”
But Cash felt a special kinship with Ira Hayes. Both men had served in the military as a way to escape their lives of rural poverty longing to create new opportunities. Plus, both suffered from addiction problems; Cash and his pills and Hayes with alcohol. He decided to anchor the album with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” And since the song had provided the spark for Cash’s vision, it just felt right that he should learn more about the song’s subject.
Cash contacted Ira Hayes’ mother and then visited her and her family at the Pima reservation in Arizona. Before Cash left the Pima Reservation, Hayes’ mother presented him with a gift, a smooth black translucent stone. The Pima call it an “Apache tear.” The legend behind the opaque volcanic black glass is rooted in the last U.S. cavalry attack on Native people, which took place on Apaches in the state of Arizona. After the slaughter, the soldiers refused to allow the Apache women to put the dead up on stilts, a sacred Apache tradition. Legend says that overcome by intense grief, Apache women shed tears for the first time ever, and the tears that fell to the earth turned black. Cash, moved by the gift, polished the stone and mounted it on a gold chain.
With the Apache tear draped around his neck, Cash cut his protest album. He recorded five of La Farge’s songs, two of his own, and one he’d co-written with Johnny Horton. All were Native American themed. “When we went back into the studio to record what became ‘Bitter Tears,’” Cash bassist Marshall Grant says, “we could see that John really had a special feeling for this record and these songs.”
Below: "Johnny Cash touring Wounded Knee with the descendants of those who survived the 1890 massacre in December of 1968."