Book Review: A Heartbeat And A Guitar: Johnny Cash The Making Of Bitter Tears by Antoninio D’Ambrosio

by Dakin Hardwick on January 12, 2010

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Johnny Cash might be the most chronicled musician in pop music history. There are literally hundreds of biographies, authorized and unauthorized. The best, of course, is Cash by Johnny Cash. This book is not a biography of Johnny Cash. It’s the story of a record, one of the greatest records ever made.

For the uninitiated, Bitter Tears: Ballads Of The American Indians, is a full-length album of protest songs. They are all songs about the plight of the American Indian. It is a dark and passionate record, and very controversial for its time. If you buy only one Johnny Cash studio record, buy this one.

The book actually tells three stories. The first one is the story of Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian that was also a Marine, who is most famous for being featured in the classic photograph of the American flag being raised in Iwo Jima. The second story is the tale of Peter LaFarge, an American Indian folk singer that lived in Greenwich Village during the folk revival of the 1960’s. The third story involves Johnny Cash, and how his various different career choices led him to make this record.

The basic flow of the book very similar to that of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. All three stories begin and end in different places, and the author interweaves all three lives throughout the book. Mixed in with all three stories is a brief history of the American Indian rights movement, and how it relates to all three lives in the book.

What I like most about this book is that it doesn’t retell the Johnny Cash story in the same way we’ve heard before. This is about Johnny Cash, the man that fights for what he believes in. His relationship with Peter LaFarge and his feelings about Ira Hayes are central to this book, and those are the people that you really learn about.

This is an excellent document of three figures involved in the American Indian civil rights movement, and I highly recommend it. And, please pick up a copy of Bitter Tears by Johnny Cash, as well as Peter LaFarge’s excellent As Long As The Grass Shall Grow which is available from Bear Family Records.

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