On This Day: Johnny Cash Records ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes’ in 1964

by Katie Maloney
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Fifty-seven years ago today, Johnny Cash recorded the folk song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Backlash immediately followed.

The song is about a real-life man, Ira Hayes who was a Pima Native American and one of the Marines in the famous photo from Iwo Jima. He was one of six men to return from that battle. However, after his heroic deeds during World War II, Hayes battled alcoholism and unhappiness on a reservation in America.

Songwriter and musician Peter La Farge wrote the song. La Farge wrote and recorded five albums between 1962-65. All of them were dedicated to Native American themes, blues, cowboy songs, and love songs. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” was a song from one of his albums. It became his most famous song. Johnny Cash recorded the song in 1964 for his albumBitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. Cash’s version of the song spent 20 weeks on the Hot Country Songs chart and peaked in the number three spot.

Johnny Cash Faced Backlash For Recording His Bitter Tears Album

Undoubtedly, Johnny Cash is a badass. However, his actions to promote Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian and advocate for the rights of Native Americans were next level. Because of political tensions throughout American at the time, Columbia Records only shipped a minimal amount of the records. They took on a “soft censorship” marketing strategy where they did not promote the album at all. Additionally, many radio stations just refused to play the album.

When Cash learned of all the opposition, he took matters into his own hands. He bought back thousands of copies of the record, wrote a protest letter that he placed as an ad in Billboard magazine, stuffed the letter inside each record, and traveled around the country hand-delivering the record to radio stations and asking them to give it a chance. A line from the opening paragraph of Johnny Cash’s letter says, “DJs, station managers, owners, etc., where are your guts?”

There’s even an entire documentary film dedicated to the making of the song and album, Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears. During an interview, writer/director Antonino D’Ambrosio talked about Peter La Farge and Johnny Cash.

“La Farge’s music spoke directly to the human condition in a way. As musician Bill Miller says in the film, as ‘being truthful, and powerful, and poetic in a modern world. And Johnny Cash comes in and takes it. And makes it fly, and gave it wings.’ It’s a reminder that even though the specific details of our lives may be different, we all share life’s outline,” said D’Ambrosio. “It’s a demand that we all accept our responsibility as citizens of the world. And participate in making that world work better for everyone.”

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