Johnny Cash was a hot commodity in 1964 when he gave his record company an ambitious new concept album, “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.”
But the label treated that album more like a hot potato because of its potentially controversial subject matter, prompting Cash to take matters into his own hands to promote a project that he consistently cited as one of the proudest moments of his storied career.
A half-century later, “Bitter Tears” is getting another shot at recognition through “Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited,” a new version recorded by a group of country and Americana stars. Released Tuesday, the album includes performances by Cash’s friends Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris as well as singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Native American musician Bill Miller, Carolina Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens and L.A.’s quirky duo Milk Carton Kids.
For producer and roots music specialist Joe Henry, “Bitter Tears” isn’t just a high watermark in American popular music, but one whose exploration of the injustices suffered by Native Americans for much of the past four centuries opened “a window into a particular part of our history that remains open and unresolved.”
“You have to understand, Johnny Cash was my first conscious musical hero of my lifetime,” Henry said.
But as much as Henry admired Cash, he acknowledged that “I did not understand the significance of the line he drew with his own record label and the music industry at large in 1964, when the record was released.”
That refers to the struggle Cash had with Columbia Records executives to promote “Bitter Tears” at a time when country music – especially country radio – had little interest in politically conscious music. Among the toughest sells was “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” songwriter Peter La Farge’s castigation of the disrespect the Native American Hayes received upon returning home from serving in the military during World War II and being part of the team that raised the flag at Iwo Jima, Japan.
“This is not something the record company wanted because the record company wanted hits – and John wanted to make music that he felt mattered,” said Robert Hilburn, author of the 2013 biography “Johnny Cash: The Life” and former pop music critic for The Times.
“One of his greatest gifts was the way he empathized with people in need, especially underdogs, because he had been an underdog himself, coming from a poor dirt farm in Arkansas,” Hilburn said.
“John and I had the same social conscience, I think,” Kristofferson told The Times. Kristofferson performs “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” on the new version.
“I always respected that song because when he did it, it wasn’t so popular,” he said. “But John always did what he thought was right, and I thought that was a pretty great way to go through life.”
It certainly did on Miller, the three-time Grammy Award- winning Native American singer and songwriter who performs the title track, the only song not on the original album, but was also written by La Farge, who wrote the majority of the album’s original songs.
Miller was 9 when “Bitter Tears” was released, and he vividly remembers its effect on the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican reservation where he grew up in Wisconsin.
“It was unforgettable,” he said. “In 1964, not only did I tune in Feb. 9 to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but that was the year my dad bought me ‘Bitter Tears.’ …
“So at the same time you’d hear people talk about the Beatles and the music representing their culture, which I loved, we had this album that spoke about our culture,” Miller said. “I didn’t play it for everybody, but when I listened to it I felt lifted, and so happy, because I was such a Johnny Cash fan.”
For Cash, “Bitter Tears” wasn’t a narrowly focused bromide against the unfair treatment of Native Americans, but part of the broader political conversation that was front and center in the 1960s.
“My father didn’t only have sympathy for the Native Americans’ plight and needs; he considered himself to be one of them,” said John Carter Cash, referring to his father’s belief at the time that he was part Cherokee, which turned out not to be the case. “His heart never felt so deeply as when he recorded ‘Bitter Tears’ and no greater afterward.”