A Heartbeat and a Guitar
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I Had to Fight Back

    On a particularly gray, cold morning in Bowling Green, Ohio, back in February 2005, I found myself in a small, windowless room, where an undergraduate student from Bowling Green State University had just given me a warm smile and handed me a stack of records. She also congratulated me on the talk I had given the night before. At the invitation of Daniel Boudreau, a Ph.D. candidate in the American Cultural Studies Department, I’d come to Bowling Green on a lecture tour to support my first book, Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer   
    The university had graciously offered to grant me access to its prestigious Music Library and Sound Recordings Archives. I soon found myself in the third-floor office of the gregarious archivist Bill Schurk, who regaled me with stories about music and the things archivists find exciting—which I happen to find exciting, too, including    the documenting of materials that may seem worthless but over time provide an invaluable record of a moment that has slipped away but thankfully has been preserved forever.

    For anyone who loves music, the Sound Recordings Archives is a magnificent place—every recording in human history seems to be housed there. I was excited to get into the shelves of rare LPs, music books,and other music-related media. After speaking with Schurk and his staff, I felt like Tom Hanks’s character in the film Big when he  was unleashed in FAO Schwarz and danced joyfully on the huge piano.I requested as many records as I could possibly listen to in my allotted time. The list was long and contained mostly recordings I’d never heard of, including rare albums by Woody Guthrie, The Carter Family, Django Reinhardt, Spencer Davis, Charlie Parker, and The Clash.

    After thanking the student who had given me the records, I handled each one as if it were a priceless artifact. (To me they actually all were priceless artifacts.) I listened intently to all of them. Then, near the bottom of the stack, I came upon a Johnny Cash record that I’d checked off the list as an afterthought. I was happy, though, that the record was part of the archives; I had discovered this little-known Cash record while writing about Cash’s collaboration with The Clash’s former front man Joe Strummer for my previous book. But now, as Cash’s gaunt face and steely eyes stared back at me from the Bitter Tears album cover, I realized that there was something striking,even unsettling about this image. This wasn’t the myth, the persona that has become Johnny Cash, but rather something truer, more authentically John R. Cash, the former sharecropper and cotton picker from Arkansas.In contrast to looking rock ’n’ roll hip—a swaggering, pompadoured balladeer with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder—here his famous head of hair was cropped short and ringed by a red headband. The look in his eyes seemed troubled, as if what he was about to share was something heavy and hard. I slid the record out of its sleeve and a piece of paper fell out, landing at my feet. Picking it up, I saw that it was a copy of a letter Cash had penned on his own letterhead, with his cursive signature at the top, and the proclamation


at the bottom. One line jumped out at me: “D.J.’s—station managers—owners. . . where are your guts?”

    The disc in my hand was not the original pressing. Bear Family Records,a German independent record label, reissued it in 1984 with lyrics,photos, quotes, commentary, and a few extra songs. It was quite clear from reading the essay-like liner notes that lots of people had lots to say about this Cash record
    The title, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, prompted a question: What had Cash been up to? I looked at the recording date: 1964. Barely a year earlier, Cash had scored one of his biggest hits ever with “Ring of Fire.” But the year added another layer of intrigue to the story,for it was a bellwether year in U.S.history. The headlines shouted about the Beatles, Muhammad Ali, the Vietnam War, the Newport Folk Festival, and Martin Luther King Jr.; the Johnson-Goldwater presidential election, the Civil Rights Act, Johnson’s Great Society, and the early stirrings of what a few years later would become known as the “Red Power”—taking its cue from the term “Black Power”—the Native movement that took hold in the 1960s and grew in the 1970s among Native people. Recorded four years before Cash’s Folsom Prison performance and the American Indian Movement’s takeover of Alcatraz Island, Bitter Tears was released smack in the middle of the roiling civil rights movement and escalating war in Vietnam.In the face of such momentous change and conflict, an album sympathetic to Native people’s issues and their seemingly never-ending search for justice now seemed to me both a compelling and a daring undertaking. At the time, Cash was a music superstar. What kind of response did he get to this album? How did the radio stations respond to a superstar who was giving voice to an oppressed group fighting to be heard? A thousand more questions began swirling in my mind, but one was at the root of them all: Why did Cash make this record?

Copyright © 2009 by Nation Books