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Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian is a concept album and twentieth album released by singer Johnny Cash in 1964 on Columbia Records. It is one of several Americana records by Cash; as its title implies, the tracks on the album focus exclusively on the history of and problems facing Native Americans in the United States. Cash had been convinced that his ancestry included members of the Cherokee tribe, and this partly served as inspiration for recording Bitter Tears, but as he would later learn on researching his ancestry, his ancestry was Scottish, English, and Scots-Irish. Throughout the album, Cash concentrates on the harsh and unfair treatment of the indigenous peoples of North America.

In 2014 a tribute album Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited was released with contributions by Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Emmylou Harris, Bill Miller and others.


File:Peter LaFarge.jpg

The songs were mostly written by Peter La Farge (5 songs), 2 were by Cash, and the final track was by Cash and Johnny Horton. The first song, "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow", by La Farge, concerns the contemporary loss of Seneca nation land in Pennsylvania due to the construction of the Kinzua Dam in the early 1960s. "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", tells the story of Ira Hayes, a young Marine of Pima descent who participated in the flag raising on Iwo Jima and became an instant celebrity, only to die drunk and in poverty on the Gila River Reservation where he was born. Both compositions, which outside the choruses are performed in spoken word, tell the story of how the U.S. Government broke treaties with the Native Americans by constructing a dam to divert water from the Pima. Lafarge's song "Custer" mocks the popular veneration of General George Custer, defeated at Little Big Horn. A version of the song is sometimes sung in concert by Buffy Sainte-Marie as "Custer Song".

Cash rerecorded "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow" decades after Bitter Tears and released it on Unearthed with the lyrics altered to describe his relationship with and devotion to June Carter Cash; the track itself was a duet with the latter, making what ended up being one of their final recorded duets. Cash also sang "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow" on the short-lived Pete Seeger television program Rainbow Quest, backed by Pete Seeger and June Carter. Prior to performing the song, Cash and Seeger exchanged some comments on the life of Peter La Farge and their mutual admiration for him as a songwriter, and the issues he raised with his music.


Bitter Tears and one single were successful, the album rising to No. 2 and "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, but not without a lot of effort. Though it started out quickly on the Billboard chart, seven weeks later the song was floundering in the mid-teens. Cash was unhappy with the lack of radio airplay "Ira Hayes" was getting. He paid for a full-page ad which appeared in the August 22, 1964 issue of Billboard magazine, calling some DJ's and programmers "gutless" for not playing the song, asking why they were afraid to do so. He left the question unanswered.[1]

He followed the letter up with a campaign to support the song, sending out more than 1,000 copies he paid for himself, to radio stations across America.[2] By September 19, the song had reached number 3 in Billboard.[3]

In 2010, the Western Writers of America chose "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.[4]

Track listing Edit


Personnel Edit


Additional personnelEdit

  • Produced by: Don Law and Frank Jones
  • Cover Photo: Bob Cato
  • Reissue Producer: Bob Irwin
  • Digitally Mastered by: Vic Anesini, Sony Music Studios, NY (CD Reissue)
  • Liner Notes: Hugh Cherry

Charts Edit

Album - Billboard (North America)

Year Chart Position
1964 Country Albums 2
1964 Pop Albums 47

Singles - Billboard (North America)

Year Single Chart Position
1964 "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" Country Singles 3

Reissue and revivalEdit

The album was included on the Bear Family Records box set Come Along and Ride This Train in 1984.

In 2011, after Antonino D'Ambrosio published A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, there was renewed interest in the album. D'Ambrosio acted as executive producer, and also made a documentary film about, the re-recording of the songs by various artists, chosen for their personal interest in the album. Called Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, it was released by Sony Masterworks in 2014.[5] The film is We're Still Here: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited,[6] and it first aired on PBS on February 1, 2016.[7]

Song listingEdit

Performers shown in brackets:

  • "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow" (Gillian Welch & David Rawlings)
  • "Apache Tears" (Emmylou Harris w/the Milk Carton Kids)
  • "Custer" (Steve Earle w/the Milk Carton Kids)
  • "The Talking Leaves" (Nancy Blake w/Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
  • "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" (Kris Kristofferson w/Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
  • "Drums" (Norman Blake w/Nancy Blake, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
  • "Apache Tears (Reprise)" (Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
  • "White Girl" (Milk Carton Kids)
  • "The Vanishing Race" (Rhiannon Giddens) Additional words by Rhiannon Giddens
  • "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow (Reprise)" (Nancy Blake, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings)
  • "Look Again to the Wind" (Bill Miller) Peter La Farge song not included on the original album.


  1. Johnny Cash, Billboard ad, Billboard, August 22, 1964. Retrieved February 18, 2016
  2. Antonino D'Ambrosio, A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, Nation Books, 2011, p. 176
  3. Hot Country Singles Chart, Billboard Magazine, September 19, 1964, p. 29
  4. Western Writers of America (2010). „The Top 100 Western Songs”. American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014. 
  5. Stephen L. Betts, Johnny Cash's 'Bitter Tears' Fall Again: Tribute album set for 50th anniversary of iconic Cash collection, Rolling Stone, July 14, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2017
  6. Bruce Sylvester, Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, Rolling Stone, September 15, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2017
  7. Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears, PBS, February 1, 2016. Accessed February 18, 2017

External links Edit

Template:Johnny Cash