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A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tearsby Antonino D'Ambrosio
Johnny Cash's 1964 concept album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian is certainly one of the finest (and most underrated) records of his career. D'Ambrosio's book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, while well-researched and mostly fascinating, is perhaps somewhat mistitled. Though Cash's album, devoted to the vicious and unfair treatment of indigenous peoples, is the pivot upon which the narrative depends, a majority of the book is spent relating the not-unrelated tales of Peter La Farge (a folksinger who wrote five of the album's eight songs), the native rights and civil rights movements, and the reemergence of the folk scene (Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, etc.). Little room (or, maybe, room not ample enough) is devoted to Cash and his truly singular album. While Bitter Tears was met with a combination of disregard and reproach, the album did meet with some success, eventually climbing to number two on the country charts and 47th overall. There is much to like in D'Ambrosio's book, and it is evident that he is fond of the subject and excited to have been able to write about it. For any well-read music lover, Cash fan, or folk devotee, many of the facts and faces will be familiar. Woven together, the story of converging movements is intriguing, and D'Ambrosio's portrait of an era is vivid and well-constructed. A Heartbeat and a Guitar is not, however, so much a biography of Johnny Cash as it is a memoir of a chapter in American history rife with great change and upheaval.
Synopses & Reviews
A Heartbeat and a Guitar tells of the collaboration of two distinct yet connected musicians — iconoclast Johnny Cash and pioneering folk artist Peter La Farge — and the album they created, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. It also tells of the unique personal, political, and cultural struggles that informed this album, one that has influenced the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
D'Ambrosio has interviewed dozens of Cash's and La Farge's friends, family, and collaborators, including surviving members of his band, his producers, and Pete Seeger and Kris Kristofferson, creating a dramatic picture of both an era of radical protest and the making of one of the most controversial and enduring works of political pop art of the 1960s.
"...a rare and extraordinary work thanks to D'Ambrosio's exceptional and masterful storytelling.... D’Ambrosio’s work, like Cash himself, is highly original and a force to be reckoned with." Johnny Western, musician and longtime emcee of The Johnny Cash Show
"This book is a truly fascinating journey, charting the historical and social context of a courageous musical statement by one of our greatest rebel voices." Jim Jarmusch, filmmaker
"I believe D'Ambrosio has made an important contribution to the cultural history of our time." Howard Zinn
The untold story of the making of Johnny Cashs most controversial album, Bitter Tears
About the Author
D'Ambrosio is a writer, documentary filmmaker, and photographer. He is the founder/director of La Lutta New Media Collective, a media/activist production group based in New York City.
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