The children of late country legend Johnny Cash remember their father as a peaceful social justice advocate. So when video footage of the neo-Nazi rallies that broke out in Charlottesville over the weekend captured one white supremacist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt, the singer’s daughter, Roseanne Cash, spoke out.
“[Johnny Cash] would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are poison in our society, and an insult to every American hero who wore a uniform to fight the Nazis in WWII,” Roseanne wrote in an emotional Facebook post also signed by Kathy, Cindy and Tara Cash.
“Several men in the extended Cash family were among those who served with honor,” she continues. “Our dad told each of us, over and over throughout our lives, ‘Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love.'”
Roseanne was right. In fact, her words bring to mind Cash’s advocacy in the 1960s for another marginalized community: Native Americans.
In 1964, Cash made the then-controversial career move to release Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, an entire album dedicated to advocating for the rights of Native Americans. It included the now-famous single “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” originally recorded by folk singer Peter La Farge, which chronicled the story of the Pima Indian who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima during World War II.
The album and single were a big risk for Cash, who had just struck gold with his crossover hit “Ring of Fire.” Native American rights were far from a popular cause at the time, and the industry was quick to resist Cash’s effort. But when some radio station managers outright boycotted the song, Cash took out a full-page ad in Billboard asking the same question many Americans horrified of the events in Charlottesville are, tragically, still asking political leaders today: “Where are your guts?”
“Classify me, categorize me — STIFLE me, but it won’t work,” Cash wrote. “‘Ballad of Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine. So is Rochester — Harlem — Birmingham and Vietnam… As an American who is almost a half-breed Cherokee-Mohawk (and who knows what else?) — I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of Ira Hayes.”
“Just one question,” the singer continues. “WHY???”
Where the industry failed to act, the world listened. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, peaking at No. 3 the week of Sep 19, 1964. It has since been covered by countless artists, including Bob Dylan, who included the song on his 1973 Dylan. And 53 years since its release, “Ira Hayes” is less a country relic than a continued reminder of a battle against hatred that continues to be fought.
Read the entire letter Cash penned in Billboard, below.
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