The untold story of Johnny Cash, protest singer and Native American activist, and his feud with the music industry
By Antonino D'Ambrosio
"I don't know those songs," replied Cash, "but I got a few of my own I can play for you." Dressed in his trademark black suit, his jet-black hair a little longer than usual, Cash draped the strap of his Martin guitar over his right shoulder and played three songs, all of them decidedly to the left of "Okie From Muskogee." With the nation still mired in Vietnam, Cash had far more than prison reform on his mind. Nixon listened with a frozen smile to the singer's rendition of the explicitly antiwar "What Is Truth?" and "Man in Black" ("Each week we lose a hundred fine young men") and to a folk protest song about the plight of Native Americans called "The Ballad of Ira Hayes." It was a daring confrontation with a president who was popular with Cash's fans and about to sweep to a crushing reelection victory, but a glimpse of how Cash saw himself--a foe of hypocrisy, an ally of the downtrodden. An American protest singer, in short, as much as a country music legend.
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]."
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.
One editor of a country music magazine demanded that Cash resign from the Country Music Association because "you and your crowd are just too intelligent to associate with plain country folks, country artists and country DJs." Johnny Western, a DJ, singer and actor who for many years was part of Cash's road show, recalls a conversation with "a very popular and powerful DJ." According to Western, the DJ was "connected to many of the music associations and other influential recording industry groups. He had always been incredibly supportive of John." Western and the DJ started discussing Cash's new album and the "Ira Hayes" single. "He asked me why John did this record. I told him that John and all of us had a great feeling for the American Indian cause. He responded that he felt that the music, in his mind, was un-American and that he would never play the record on air and had strongly advised other DJs and radio stations to do the same. Just ignore it until John came back to his senses, is what he told me."
Below: "Johnny Cash touring Wounded Knee with the descendants of those who survived the 1890 massacre in December of 1968." (Courtesy of John L. Smith)