Peter LaFarge, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

In 1964, Johnny Cash recorded one of his best and most under-rated works, called Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It was a concept album, focusing entirely on the history and civil rights abuses of the indigenous population in the United States. The songs that that Cash did not write himself were all written by the New York-based singer-songwriter Peter LaFarge, including the only song released as a single, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes“.
Cash dedicated a great deal of his time in the 1960s and 70s to the cause of Native American civil rights, including a visit to and a concert for the people of the Lakota reservation in 1968, the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.

Richard Elfstrom’s documentary, released in 1969, features Cash’s tour of the historic site, conducted by descendants of the victims. Elfstrom basically followed Cash around, with a camera, during 1968, when Cash was at a creative peak. He captured some wonderful behind the scenes footage as well as some significant concerts. In this clip, Cash is performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for his Lakota audience:

Cash’s “leftie credentials” are a subject of much debate, and rightly so.* My own feeling, on admittedly fairly superficial research, is that Cash’s dedication to particular issues of social reform were, as with many artists, spurred by his direct experience. In this case, Peter LaFarge himself was a personal inspiration.

LaFarge was associated with the Greenwich Village 1960s heyday of folk music, and was what might be called a single issue songwriter, devoting his musical career to the cause of Native American civil rights.

On May 10 1962, Cash’s long sought-after concert at Carnegie Hall flopped, badly. Deeply depressed, he sought escape in music, and went downtown to Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe, where LaFarge happened to be performing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. It changed his life. In a style that seems typical, he threw himself into the social issue that was the central preoccupation of LaFarge’s life. Cash debuted Bitter Tears at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964; he went down a treat and gained an audience in the protest folk scene, a rare crossover for a country music star.+

In the way that good folk music does, the Ballad keeps returning. In 2011, the Mohican singer and flute player Bill Miller was invited to join the inaugural Johnny Cash Festival in Arkansas. He decided to play “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”.

“It came about because John Carter Cash and I are working on a project with [Roy’s son] Wesley Orbison,” said Miller [in 2011]. “John Carter told me about the festival and asked if I wanted to do it. I’ve been singing [Cash’s 1958 classic] ‘I Still Miss Someone’ since I was 10-years-old, but Rosanne [Cash, Johnny Cash’s daughter] was singing it in the show. So he asked me if I’d do ‘Ira Hayes’- which I’d never done, but always wanted to do.”But the lengthy ballad had so many lyrics that Miller had shied away from it.

“Then its impact on me hit me just the other day when I was getting ready to perform it,” he said. “It’s such a sad story and powerful image. I remember asking my mom, ‘Who’s hand is reaching for the flag on top of the hill?’ And she said it was a native man. And what happened to Ira Hayes in his life related to me: My dad [like LaFarge himself] was a Korean war veteran, and he died a drunk. And here’s a song about the same thing, and it’s tragic.”

50 years after Bitter Tears was recorded, a collective of artists came together to reimagine the album. Look Again To The Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, was produced by Joe Henry and features Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bill Miller, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Norman and Nancy Blake, as well as up-and-comers The Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens, interpreting the music of Bitter Tears for a new generation.

“Prior to Bitter Tears, the conversation about Native American rights had not really been had,” says Henry, “and at a very significant moment in his trajectory, Johnny Cash was willing to draw a line and insist that this be considered a human rights issue, alongside the civil rights issue that was coming to fruition in 1964. But he also felt that the record had never been heard, so there’s a real sense that we’re being asked to carry it forward.”

About Ira Hayes

Ira Hamilton Hayes was a member of the Pima tribe, based at the Gila reservation in Phoenix, Arizona, and a United States Marine. A veteran of the Pacific campaign, Hayes was one of the soldiers made famous by the classic John Rosenthal photograph of the American flag being raised on top of the hill at Iwo Jima. Despite his own efforts to remain incognito, he was thrust into the War Department media circus known as a “war bonds drive”, which did not work out well. He was eventually returned to his combat unit, but by then he had already learned to cope by drinking and was a confirmed alcoholic. In January 1955 he was found dead of exposure and alcohol poisoning on his Arizona lands.

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*Cash’s children, particularly his daughter Roseanne, have done an admirable job of preserving the story of Cash’s iconoclasm and complexity, and arguing against his being claimed by either the left or the right.

+There is a story that Cash Played “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” for Nixon at a meeting on prison reform in 1972, but I have found some evidence that this is one of conflations of half-truth and myth. Further investigation requires listening to the Nixon tapes, and I really don’t have time for that right now. The article that argues this point of view is here.

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