August 05, 2007

Cash DVD highlights Indians

Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music [DVD]Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, and His Music (1969), directed by Robert Elfstrom, is a “slice of life” picture of the singer from this period. Shot in direct cinema style, the film takes the viewer along on Cash’s boisterous ride. The scene stretches from adoring fans to bemused reporters, from awed young singers to fellow veteran musical travellers, from the stages of Nashville back to the dirt-poor Arkansas farm where he grew up. The voyage is a bit more respectable than rowdy, with Cash largely playing the family man rather than a disheveled, drug-addled wild man. But you still get flashes of his anger, class critique, and outlaw orneriness as he glares at the invasive camera.

[One] striking moment in the film is concert footage of Cash’s performance of songs from his Bitter Tears album at a 1968 Sioux Indian reservation concert in South Dakota. This footage illustrates Cash’s activism for Native American land rights and also the difficulties of navigating fame and power differentials between the singer and his listeners. At the concert, one of many where he performed to raise money for Native American tribes, Cash smoked a peace pipe, Sioux men and women performed traditional dances and songs, and he told his audience “Let’s have the house lights turned up so we can look each other in the eye and tell it like it really was.” The unequal power relationship between him and his audience is obvious—they do not have his degree of agency and cultural access to be able to “tell it like it really was”, but Cash’s commitment to and engagement with this audience is serious. The documentary covers Cash’s trip to Wounded Knee, where a Sioux chief asked him to write a song about the 1890 massacre, and we see him composing the song, “Big Foot”, which decries the slaughter.

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