BY RICK ALLEN
It’s almost hard to believe that longtime music
writer Antonino D’Ambrosio was unfamiliar with “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the song
that inspired his book A Heartbeat And A
Guitar: Johnny Cash And The Making Of Bitter Tears. By his own admission he
came upon Johnny Cash’s recording of the tune during a visit to Bowling Green University’s Music Library and Sound
Recording Archives. Yet the song had been recorded by folk singer Patrick Sky
in the 1960s and again by Bob Dylan, plus Kinky Friedman, in the 1970s; written
by Native American songwriter Peter LaFarge, the song had also been covered by
Kris Kristofferson, Hazel Dickens, Tom Russell, Pete Seger and Townes Van Zandt,
and it was a #3 Billboard Country
Music Chart hit for Cash in 1964.
But better late than never. And once D’Ambrosio
was in, he was in all the way.
D’Ambrosio provides comprehensive extensive
background of the song itself, its Pima hero, his people and other Native
peoples and their historical relationship with the United States. The book does a lot
toward explaining how this country got into one of the ethnic messes in which
it is still entangled, and touches on the reasons behind a couple more. Moreover,
it fleshes out a hitherto sketchy portrait of the troubled and talented
songwriter LaFarge. It’s a portrait so sketchy that there are no less than
three alleged causes of his 1965 death at the age of 34; those causes include
accidental death by overdose of Thorazine, a drug LaFarge was supposed and
ironically introduced to LaFarge by Cash; suicide, by slitting his wrists; and
death by stroke.
Whether or not Cash – no stranger to pharmaceuticals
– had anything to do with LaFarge’s acquaintance with the drug that may have
taken his life, the Man in Black is definitely the main hero of the book. Cash
was a tireless crusader for the rights of the working class, farmers,
prisoners, ex-cons and Native people, though somewhat strangely he was
relatively silent as regards African American civil rights. D’Ambrosio says it
was “hard for Cash not to be stirred by the events of the civil rights movement”
but there isn’t much followup. Dylan, Pete Seger and Theo Bikel were among the
non-black folk artists who were more vocal and pointed in their support before
the mid-1960s. Later, Cash did buck the still lopsided status quo by featuring
and performing duets with Ray Charles, Charley Pride, Louis Armstrong and other
black artists on his TV show.
But one man can only do so much. Even so, Cash
publicly butted heads with the radio industry and his own record company when
it came to the Native American themed Bitter
Tears: Ballads Of The American Indian album which featured “The Ballad Of
Ira Hayes,” and he risked his own recording contract to make his iconic Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison album. He
stood up for other artists including Dylan and Seger and LaFarge, and his
support for the causes close to his heart never wavered.
While Cash has become one of the most written
about popular musicians of the last few decades – growing into a sort of
guitar-wrangling cross between Abraham Lincoln, Mike Fink and Johnny Appleseed
– there always seems to be room for more. Attaching the stories of Hayes,
LaFarge and the movements for the rights of Native Americans and other
minorities to the locomotive powered by the ever growing Johnny Cash legend in
this very readable book is a mitzvah on D’Ambrosio’s part.
He may have gotten on the train relatively late
but he seems to be aboard for the whole trip.