On Feb. 23, a few days before what would have been Johnny Cash's 78th birthday, Lost Highway will release "American VI: Ain't No Grave," the final recordings Cash made with producer Rick Rubin. And as fans celebrate the legacy of one of the most iconic musicians of the last century, some Cash scholars and relatives are trying to tell another, seldom-heard part of the story. They're lobbying Sony to rerelease his virtually unknown 1964 album "Bitter Tears," a protest album that lamented our nation's institutional mistreatment of Native Americans.
Leading the campaign is Antonino D'Ambrosio, author of the book "A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears" (Nation Books, 2009). D'Ambrosio, who wrote about the intersections of music and politics in his book "Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer," discovered "Bitter Tears" while digging around the Bowling Green State University Sound Recordings Archives. He describes himself as a passionate Cash fan, but this was the first time he'd heard the album.
"It would have been very easy for Johnny Cash to make a civil rights record at that time," he says. "He didn't. He chose to focus on the very real struggle of another group, and the album is relevant to this day."
That "Bitter Tears" has been lost to history isn't a coincidence. Columbia "indulged" Cash and signed off on the project, D'Ambrosio says, "because he'd done so well for them with 'Ring of Fire' a year earlier." The songs, written by Cash, Peter La Farge and Johnny Horton, are nuanced and deeply felt. "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" is particularly heartbreaking, charting the decline of a Native American Marine who raised the flag at Iowa Jima, came home to great praise and eventually drank himself to death in Arizona. But upon release, the label distanced itself from the controversial project.
"They didn't really support it," D'Ambrosio says.
Cash found even less backing at radio, prompting him to take out a full-page ad in Billboard's Aug. 22, 1964, issue. The letter is a searing indictment of his label and the DJs who refused to play the album. At one point, Cash writes, "DJs‹station managers‹owners, etc., where are your guts?" And even though Cash chose Billboard to broadcast his message to the industry, the magazine didn't deem the album worthy of review.
Despite the album's obscurity, Cash's son, John Carter Cash, says "Bitter Tears" is one of his favorites in his father's discography. "Nobody did concept albums back then," he says. "And this album solidifies my father's role as a humanitarian and a spokesman for the underdog. It's such an important historical record, and I'd love to see it get a proper rerelease."
While "Bitter Tears" is available on CD and at Amazon and iTunes, D'Ambrosio says he's not the only Cash fan in the dark: "I've met Johnny Cash buffs who have never heard of this album. While it is technically available, it's pretty buried." He says that he has reached out to Sony executives, but hasn't heard back. An e-mail to Sony Legacy seeking a response wasn't returned by press time.
"People don't talk about the struggles of the Native populations," Carter Cash says. "Their issues get swept under the rug, and my dad tried to do something about it. No other major artist has ever made a full album about Native rights."