Columbia Records/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
These are the stories that made Johnny Cashlarger than life.
The year was 1964 and Johnny was a country music star, having racked up 7 number one singles, including “I Walk The Line,” “Guess Things Happen That Way,” and “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town,” and had begun playing some of his famous prison shows, although his live albums wouldn’t be released until the late 1960’s.
“I Walk The Line” had served as the title track for his first ever number one album, which Johnny released in June of 1964 after already releasing an album with the Carter Family in April of the same year. But the Man In Black wasn’t yet done with putting out projects that year.
Johnny believed he was a descendent of Native American ancestry and was a long time champion of many indigenous causes. This belief, and his willingness to take seemingly unpopular stances, lead him to releasing his third project of the year titled Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian.
The concept album featured 8 songs, all of which were written by Cash or Peter La Farge, with Johnny Horton chipping in on the final track, which focused on the plight of Native Americans which continues through this day.
La Farge was the son of a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and had long taken up the history, culture, and hardships of Native Americans in his work as a singer-songwriter. He had written and released “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” for his own projects, but it wasn’t until Johnny visited the Iwo Jima memorial in Arlington, Virginia that he was moved to record the song for himself and it was exposed to a national audience.
“The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” tells the story of one of six soldiers who raised the US flag over Iwo Jima in World War II, a moment which has been memorialized in the iconic photograph below.
On this day in 1945, six soldiers raised the American flag over Iwo Jima.
Ira was a descendent of the Pima Indian tribe which was located in the Arizona desert. Like all of the indigenous peoples, their lives were completely uprooted when settlers began claiming the land in the 19th century, which ushered in many years of extreme destitution, substance abuse, and disaster.
The song speaks of his bravery and initial celebration by the American public, but turns tragic when the people no longer care about him when he returns home to his land that was torn apart and given no assistance by the country at large.
Here’s one of the song’s verses.
“Ira Hayes returned a hero Celebrated through the land He was wined and speeched and honored Everybody shook his hand But he was just a Pima Indian No water, no home, no chance At home nobody cared what Ira’d done And when did the Indians dance”
Naturally, the song, and project as a whole, was pretty contentious… especially to a music industry which always wanted to remain out of a cultural and social battle.
The song and album were successful at first, beginning to climb up the charts thanks to a grassroots movement to purchase the project, but both began to die out quickly. Sales were high, but radio stations across the country began to refuse to play the song, citing not wanting to anger any of their listeners.
Obviously, this didn’t sit so well with Johnny, who decided to make the strongest statement he could. On August 22nd, 1964, he took out a full page ad in Billboard Magazine and called out those in the industry who didn’t have the courage to play a song that most people agreed with, even if it felt iffy to bring it up in public. (Sounds a bit like the state we’re in today, doesn’t it?)
Here’s some excerpts from the letter, with the fully copy in the photo below.
“It is an astounding experience, the power that touches everyone who walks around the gigantic statue of the W.W. II flag-raising based on that classic picture from Iwo Jima. There are 5 Marines and one Navy corpsman depicted in that bronze giant at Arlington national cemetery.
I was “chilled” like that recently, then went to Columbia records and recorded “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”
D.J.’s – station managers – owners, etc., where are your guts? …
I think that you do have “guts” … that you believe in something deep down.
I’m not afraid to sing the hard, bitter lines that the son of Oliver La Farge wrote…
Still… actual sales on the Ballad of Ira Hayes are more than double the *Big Country Hit* sales average.
Classify me, categorize me – STIFFLE me, but it won’t work…
This song is not of an unsung hero. The name Ira Hayes had been used and abused in every bar across the nation.
These lyrics, I realize, take us back to the truth…
This ad (go ahead and call it that) costs like hell. Would you, or those pulling the strings for you, go to the mike with a new approach? That is, listen again to the record? …
Regardless of the trade charts – the categorizing, classifying and restrictions of air play, this is not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason though for the gutless to give it thumbs down.
“The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is strong medicine…
I’ve blown my horn now, just this once, then no more. Since I’ve said these things now, I find myself not caring if the record is programmed or not. I won’t ask you to cram it down their throats.
But as an American who is almost a half-breed Cherokee-Mohawk (and who knows what else?) – I had to fight back when I realized that so many stations are afraid of “Ira Hayes.”
Just one questions: WHY???”
In 1964, Johnny Cash paid for an open letter, published in Billboard Magazine, that criticized the Country Music industry and radio stations for blackballing his "Ballad of Ira Hayes". Cash called them gutless and proclaimed they won't be able to silence him. pic.twitter.com/29fXYMlLYA
Calling out the very people who (seemingly) have so much power over your career success in such a public way is ballsy to say the least, but that’s why we look back on Johnny Cash so fondly.
As you may expect, the letter worked.
After this statement hit the public, the song began to be played on some radio stations across the country and climbed to number 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart; the album peaked at number 2.
This is why Johnny Cash has the reputation he does. Not just because of the iconic voice or the enormous catalogue of great songs, but because there was actually something behind those songs and something within the man himself that we can all aspire too… conviction.
For all of his faults, there’s no denying that Johnny Cash remains a great role model for us today, overcoming his personal struggles to achieve something larger than life and truly make an impact that will continue on well beyond his years.