February 16, 2007

Johnny Cash, Liberal?

Cash was inspired by the movements of the 1960s and spent months reading about the plight of Native Americans. The result was his record "Bitter Tears" and the song "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," the true story of a Pima Indian who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima in World War Two, but faced bigotry and rejection when he came home. In the end, "He died drunk one mornin’/Alone in the land he fought to save/Two inches of water in a lonely ditch/Was a grave for Ira Hayes."

The song rose to number three on the country charts, but many programmers refused to play it. In disgust, Johnny took out a full-page ad in Billboard that read, "‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ is strong medicine. So is Rochester-Harlem-Birmingham and Vietnam. Where’s your guts?"

He crossed musical boundaries as well, playing Bob Dylan’s songs when it was unheard of for a country singer to play folk music. At the height of his career in 1971, Cash used his TV show as a platform for antiwar protest singers like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

He performed "Man in Black" on the show. "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/But is there because he’s a victim of the times."

[ ... ]

A story told by Kris Kristofferson probably best sums up Johnny Cash. "I opened for John in Philadelphia a few years ago, and I dedicated a song to Mumia Abu-Jamal," Kristofferson told Rolling Stone magazine in 2000. "The police at the show went ballistic. After I came off, they said that I had to go out and make an apology. I felt pretty bad, because it was John’s show. But John heard about it and said to me, ‘Listen, you don’t need to apologize for nothin’. I want you to come out at the end of the show and do "Why Me" with me.’ So I went out and sang with him. John just refuses to compromise."

The American Left

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