A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, By Antonino D’Ambrosio, Nation Books (October 2009)
In 2005, journalist Antonino D’Ambrosio stumbled upon Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian and had an epiphany: “Johnny Cash was a folksinger.”
The resulting book, A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is not a biography of Johnny Cash, nor is it really a documentation of the making of Bitter Tears. Rather, it is D’Ambrosio’s effort to pin down the elements that spurred Cash to cut an album of “topical songs” devoted to an unpopular cause only a year after the massive success of “Ring of Fire.”
He finds the motivation in the heady blend of the folk revival movement and the early stirrings of Native American rights activism, and particularly in Cash’s interaction with the singer/songwriter Peter La Farge. Inspired by La Farge’s songs about the mistreatment of Native Americans, Cash set out to collaborate with him on a folk record. The resulting album, Bitter Tears, was ignored by DJs and barely promoted by Cash’s record label. It was only through Cash’s vehement self-promotion that “Ballad of Ira Hayes” landed on the Billboard charts.
La Farge, the son of Native rights advocate Oliver La Farge, settled into Greenwich Village’s folk revival circle after stints as a rodeo star, boxer, and naval antinarcotics operative. In his standard garb of an opera cape, rodeo clothes, and ten-gallon hat, La Farge cultivated an image that was “at once cowboy and Indian.”
Shortly after a disastrous performance at Carnegie Hall, Cash met La Farge at the Gaslight. Aside from sharing an interest in folk music—Cash was one of Bob Dylan’s biggest advocates at Columbia Records—both musicians had a taste for pill popping. (After their first meeting, Cash gave La Farge so much Thorazine that La Farge slept for “three or four days.”)
D’Ambrosio’s writing is best when it illustrates these small interactions, vivaciously detailing Cash’s visit to an Apache reservation and La Farge’s session with Alan Lomax. Unfortunately, D’Ambrosio gets snared in his historical excavations of the 1960s. Passages about Rosa Parks, Goldwater’s campaign, and Dylan going electric muddy the Bitter Tears narrative. D’Ambrosio’s attempt to encompass every relevant event of the era makes A Heartbeat and a Guitar read like a yearbook of 1964.
For D’Ambrosio, “learning about Johnny Cash begins and ends with listening,” and Bitter Tears “really embodied [Cash’s] true nature.” But listening to Johnny Cash isn’t the same as knowing the truth about Cash’s life: he never shot a man “just to see him die,” nor, probably, did he have the Cherokee heritage he so frequently claimed. D’Ambrosio’s enthusiasm for Bitter Tears turns into a regurgitation of Cash’s own self-constructed mythology. The Johnny Cash that sings about Ira Hayes’ plight on Bitter Tears is no more—and no less—real than the Johnny Cash of any other era. D’Ambrosio fails to mine the contradictions behind Cash’s persona.
Not that D’Ambrosio’s moment of realization was wrong; Johnny Cash was indeed a folksinger. But he was also a chameleon, a sneering rock star and an earnest troubadour, a country legend and an outlaw. Cash said as much in an angry, amphetamine-fueled letter to Billboard: “I am fighting no particular cause. If I did, it would soon make me a sluggard. For as times change, I change.”