Look Again to the Wind

Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited

Varied Artists, Produced by Joe Henry.

What would Johnny Cash say to the Washington [______________] football team, as they try to ignore the call to change their name that continues to offend?

The album, though mostly ignored at the time, clearly positions Cash in the tradition of the folk singer. This revisit doesn’t seem nostalgic, nor does it seem old, but uncannily still important.

I think Johnny would say it is about time we were serious about our racism. In fact, he might be surprised that African Americans are willing to even put on the Washington uniform. He might note the recent story of Mike Carey, a retired NFL referee, who has refused to officiate Washington games since 2006, because he felt something disrespectful” was happening. On the 50th anniversary of the release of Cash’s Bitter Tears, I imagine that if he were alive, Cash would pick up a guitar and say something.

It was 1964, the Civil Rights Act had just been signed. Cash thought that this human rights movement should include the Native Americans. While this didn’t match popular sentiment, he forged ahead by recording an album of tunes penned mostly by Peter La Farge, along with a few by himself. The album, though mostly ignored at the time, clearly positions Cash in the tradition of the folk singer.

This revisit by Look Again to the Wind doesn’t seem nostalgic, nor does it seem old, but uncannily still important. It leads off with Gillian Welch, on “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” a 9-minute telling of the way the U.S. government has continually broken the treaties it made.

George Washington gave his signature
and the government gave it’s hand
And said that now and forevermore
that this was Indian land

As long as the moon shall rise
As long as the rivers flow
As long as the sun will shine
As long as the grass shall grow

The song repeats the litanies of broken promises and being pushed out, of dams flooding lands and the destruction of the earth. My friend Paulette Moore is documenting another struggle to have treaties honored and the earth protected from the wanton destruction of the land to make more money. (http://vimeo.com/92711437) When I hear Welch Gillian’s and David Rawlings’ melancholy voices rising in warning, the song is fully present in our time.

Some other gems on this album are Emmylou Harris singing “Apache Tears,” Nancy Blake on “Talking Leaves” ( about Sequoia inventing a written language), Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) smoothly wailing “The Vanishing Race” and Steve Earle ripping through “Custer.” The later song includes a line I need to keep reflecting on, “It ain’t called an Indian victory, but a bloody massacre, but the General he don’t ride well anymore.” It points out the way we use words based on our point of view.

The most haunting song, the only one that got much airplay with the original release, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” is performed marvelously by Kris Kristofferson.

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian, who farmed the Phoenix valley until the white men stole his water rights. He volunteered when the war broke out and he was immortalized after the battle of Iwo Jima, since he was one of the men who held up the flag.

But he was just a Pima Indian
No water, no crops, no chance
At home nobody cared what Ira’d done
And when did the Indian dance

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 Milk Carton Boys, with “White Girl,” recount the devastation of love broken at the altar of racism.

But she would not marry
Not an Indian she said
She thanked me for my offer
And I wished that I was dead

For I’ve been a white girl’s pet
A captive Indian
Shown off and discarded

Bill Miller, of a Mohican heritage, ends the album singing, “Look Again to the Wind.”

Look again, look again to the wind, my brother
Once more to the wind
Now we shall move forward
Now we shall shake hands
But we will remember
That we once owned this land.

The history is grim, the story needs to be told, but as Miller, suggests these stories can transform us, and create a new future, a new society and new relationships.

Look Again reminds us of the reality of our history, and fits finely into that stream of storytellers exposing the raw truth, who don’t let it disappear under the flooding waters, or under the dust of the dying land. It is not only the lyrics that will cause you to weep. “Apache Tears Reprise,” with only instruments and harmonizing voices humming, settles in my soul in a way that the words in the other tunes seem to have mitigated.

While many people are aware of Cash’s “Burning Ring of Fire,” few remember how he followed up on that fame. I suspect that this project for him was more important than those love songs. He took the risk of alienating his audience with these songs. Fifty years later some great musicians in the folk tradition honor Cash, while at same time reminding us of our own story.