Antonino D'Ambrosio,
A Heartbeat & a Guitar:
Johnny Cash & the Making of "Bitter Tears"

(Nation, 2009)

This turned out to be one of the most fascinating books that I have read in years, although I started reading it purely out of lazy curiosity.

The subtitle gives you an inkling of the subject matter, but it sells the story much too short. The author, Antonino D'Ambrosio, opens the book by telling us about stumbling on an old Johnny Cash LP called Bitter Tears. This selection of songs recounted the suffering of the Native American over the centuries and centered largely on the excellent "Ballad of Ira Hayes."

And from that jumping off point, the reader is flung into a fascinating history of the Native Americans, World War II, the civil rights movement, the folk music explosion and America in the mid- to late 20th century. Somehow, D'Ambrosio manages to jump, twist and turn in a myriad of directions without losing the reader.

The book resounds with names that will be familiar to music lovers: Cash, Seeger, Paxton, Dylan, Odette, Jennings, Anderson and a hundred others who took on the mantle of Woodie Guthrie and others to bring a conscience to music in the 1960s.

We find in here the story of Peter LaFarge, who wrote a song about Ira Hayes, whose life was like a Hollywood movie. We hear about LaFarge's father, who was a prize-winning author and champion of Native America. We find out that the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima -- you know the iconic photograph -- was both staged and accidental.

Martin Luther King, along with Kennedy and Johnson, strides through these pages, as do the "suits" of the record labels, who often show themselves in a less-than-flattering light. We see the dollar as more important than the message in the music, and the frustration that brought to singers and writers who went into the business to spread a message rather than make a million.

This book gives more background to our beloved music than many an encyclopedia can, but it also sounds many footnotes to history such as Frank L. Baum (later of The Wizard of Oz fame) writing strident anti-Native American editorials. We hear what the Native American name for Custer's Last Stand is, and we find Johnny Cash performing at Pine Ridge only to learn that this is Wounded Knee.

It reminds us that civil rights was not just about African Americans, but that with that perception many Native American grievances were ignored.

This is not a book for those who want a whitewashed, rose-colored view of the history of America. It is a book for those willing to face a sometimes inglorious past and accept that things could have been done much better.

book review by
Nicky Rossiter

8 September 2012

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