I Had to Fight Back
On a particularly gray, cold morning in
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
“NOBODY BUT NOBODY MORE ORIGINAL THAN JOHNNY CASH”
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