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Old 12-17-2011, 02:39 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Johnny Cash - Bitter Tears : Ballads of the American Indian


Johnny Cash - Bitter Tears : Ballads of the American Indian

Tracklist

1."As Long as the Grass Shall Grow"
2."Apache Tears"
3."Custer"
4."The Talking Leaves"
5."The Ballad of Ira Hayes"
6."Drums"
7."White Girl"
8."The Vanishing Race"

This review is mostly to highlight a pretty much overlooked album in Cash's discography. When people talk about Cash, they usually mention the early Sun recordings for their rawness or the American Recordings for their starkness, but this is a real gem in Cash's discography - a concept album about the troubles of the indigenous people of America.

Strongly lashed out against by Nashville at its time of release, this one has eight songs, mostly about how the White Man fucked over the Red Man. Some are written by the man himself, some by Peter La Farge and some by both, with the last co-written with Johnny Horton.

Done in a minimalist manner, the first song "As Long as the Grass Shall Grow" is a spoken narrative of the Seneca Indian holy lands being paved over by a dam in the 60s, with all the graveyards and ancient monuments of the Seneca Indians being washed away by the dam. The emotion is pure and clear here, as a plaintive cry from Cash against the injustices performed by Paleface.

The rest of the album follows this vein, how a once noble race being reduced to foreigners on their own land, and diminished to drunkards and good-for-nothings.

"Custer" is a novelty song defacing the legend of the hero facing off murderous savages and instead of bestowing glory upon him, as the history books do, it caricaturises the legend, implying self-hagiography and that Custer himself was too old to fight in the last battle and was there just to show off. This is accompanied by Cash's now famous boom-chicka-boom rhythm.

The most famous song here is "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" - about one of the few soldiers (a Native American) pictured in the iconic photo of raising the American flag over Iwo Jima and his slow sad deterioration and pitiful death.

"The Talking Leaves" is a near-mystical song about the loss of Indian culture.

"Drums" and "White Girl" follow in the pattern of the Native American being made outcasts in their own land and the final song is pretty much a funeral song, about the dissipation of Native Americans.

Upon hearing this, I am amazed by the emotions evoked by Cash, his casual use of language, albeit erudite, the minimalistic arrangements, and the sheer audacity releasing this in 1964, when people were more conservative then.

It is also a shining diamond in Cash's discography - 8/10.
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Old 12-17-2011, 03:08 AM   #2 (permalink)
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I love the music on this album, but the reverby production makes it unlistenable in headphones.
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Old 12-17-2011, 03:22 AM   #3 (permalink)
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^^it's actually slight echo - a common production value for country those days
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Old 12-17-2011, 03:36 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Yeah, that's the sole reason his concept albums never did it for me. I think the concepts are great, it's all just marred and dated by the production practices of the time. I think that's why his American Recordings records are a favorite today – it's Cash stripped down to his raw element, something he had wanted for years but found hard to get with the producers of his day.
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Old 12-17-2011, 03:40 AM   #5 (permalink)
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^^I never have a problem with production values much, i don't understand the concept of "dated" - obviously they're relics of that time, but the effects themselves are of historical value - surely, you can't expect them to sound like records today

a lot of people I know hate that gated reverb drum sound of the 80s but my argument for that is the same as the above

i mean i don't criticise Robert Johnson's guitar sounding shrill and whiny because his records were all cut on acetate and remastered from 78s
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Old 12-17-2011, 08:50 AM   #6 (permalink)
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I had never heard of this album before but it sounds great! I'll have to check it out.
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Old 12-17-2011, 11:40 AM   #7 (permalink)
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^^I never have a problem with production values much, i don't understand the concept of "dated" - obviously they're relics of that time, but the effects themselves are of historical value - surely, you can't expect them to sound like records today

a lot of people I know hate that gated reverb drum sound of the 80s but my argument for that is the same as the above

i mean i don't criticise Robert Johnson's guitar sounding shrill and whiny because his records were all cut on acetate and remastered from 78s
But imagine if the producers had jammed Johnson's stuff with string ballads, reverb and harpsichords. It's not so much about the fidelity of the music as it is the production decisions to accompany perfectly stark, beautiful tunes (like the Cash songs on this record) with production values that undermines the actual music. The Beatles "Let It Be" record is a good example of generally poor production/mixing/mastering that I enjoyed much more when it was remastered as "Let It Be...Naked".

I guess this is an area where we fundamentally disagree, but I definitely do think music can be dated, not by the music itself, but by the production values.
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