By Kurt Wolff
Next month, one of the most acclaimed albums from country legend Johnny Cash is getting the full-blown tribute treatment.
In 1964 Cash released Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, a socially conscious album that called attention to the plight of Native Americans, while also honoring their history and heritage. Now 50 years later comes Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, which features new recordings by such artists as Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle (see the full artist and track list below). Produced by Joe Henry, the tribute album is set for release Aug. 19.
“Prior to Bitter Tears, the conversation about Native American rights had not really been had,” Henry said in a press release, “and at a very significant moment in his trajectory, Johnny Cash was willing to draw a line and insist that this be considered a human rights issue, alongside the civil rights issue that was coming to fruition in 1964. But he also felt that the record had never been heard, so there’s a real sense that we’re being asked to carry it forward.”
The original album’s best-known song is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a song written by folk singer Peter La Farge about the tragic downfall of Native American soldier Ira Hamilton Hayes, who fought in WW2 and was one of the Marines famously portrayed planting the American flag at Iwo Jima. “He died drunk one mornin’, alone in the land he fought to save,” sang Cash. “Two inches of water in a lonely ditch was a grave for Ira Hayes.”
The song has been covered by numerous artists over the years (Pete Seeger actually beat Cash to the punch by a year), but Cash’s version has retained the most visibility. In 1964 it even reached into the Top 5 on the country charts.
Along with new versions of the original album’s eight tracks, the new tribute also includes reprises of “Apache Tears” and “As Long As the Grass Shall Grow” as well as another La Farge song “Look Again to The Wind.” The latter was not included on Bitter Tears but instead was part of the songwriter’s own 1963 album As Long as the Grass Shall Grow: Peter La Farge Sings Of The Indians.
The weekend before the release of the new tribute album, the fourth annual Johnny Cash Music Festival will take place Aug. 15 at the Convocation Center at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Ark. Featuring performances this year by Loretta Lynn, Reba and Bobby Bare, the festival benefits the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home Project, which is restoring the home where Cash grew up in Dyess, Ark. Members of Cash’s family are directly involved in that project, including Cash’s daughter Rosanne.
Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited track list:
01: “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” (Gillian Welch & David Rawlings)
02: “Apache Tears” (Emmylou Harris w/the Milk Carton Kids)
03: “Custer” (Steve Earle w/the Milk Carton Kids)
04: “The Talking Leaves” (Nancy Blake w/Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
05: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” (Kris Kristofferson w/Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
06: “Drums” (Norman Blake w/Nancy Blake, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
07: “Apache Tears (Reprise)” (Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
08: “White Girl” (Milk Carton Kids)
09: “The Vanishing Race” (Rhiannon Giddens)
10: “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow (Reprise)” (Nancy Blake, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
11: “Look Again to the Wind” (Bill Miller)