As Long As the Grass Shall Grow: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears

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Photo from ACLU

Marking what would have been the great Johnny Cash's 84th birthday and this month's airing of a new documentary, a look back at the seminal but little-known story of Cash's 1964 concept album, "Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian," the censorship battle he fought on behalf of the right of native people to land stolen through hundreds of broken treaties, and his decades-long devotion to anti-war and human rights causes. The PBS documentary, "Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears," also describes a re-recording of the album - "We're Still Here" - to honor its 50th anniversary, with contributions from musicians from Rosanne Cash to Emmylou Harris to Steve Earle.

The film mostly focuses on the resistance Cash faced from a fearful music industry made more so in the era of civil rights unrest, protests against the Vietnam War and the rise of the American Indian Movement. In the midst of his own battle with drug addiction, says his daughter Rosanne, he embraced those fights on a personal level as "part of his own woundedness." But as a man "hungry for depth and truth," he also fiercely defended them as embodying a vital struggle for human rights for all those dispossessed.Thus did he fight the inevitable backlash, says the film's director in an ACLU interview, "whenever you pull back the curtain on the spit-polished version of American history and reveal the bodies, the butchery, the spilled blood that led us here." Cash began a blistering letter to music executives shying away from his album with, "Where are your guts?" It's as good a question now as ever. R.I.P., Man In Black.


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