The Cowboy in Country Music: Johnny Cash


 “Hank and Joe and Me” is a western song about men searching for gold in the desert; “Old Apache Squaw” shows his early interest in Indians; “I Got Stripes” shows his interest in prisons and prisoners; “My Grandfather’s Clock” and “The Great Speckled Bird” are both old songs considered “folk,” and “The Great Speckled Bird” is a gospel number.


These songs came out on an album, Songs of Our Soil, which was his first “concept” album. On Cash’s album Ride This Train, recorded early in 1960, Cash developed the idea of a “concept” album further. On this album he composed “Dorraine of Ponchartrain,” “Going to Memphis” (a rewrite of an old folk song) and “When Papa Played the Dobro.” There were no hit singles from this album but it was a landmark album for Cash.

The folk movement was a lyric- dominated music interested in issues and topics deeper than a hit song. Cash’s concept album lent itself to this folk movement. In the summer of 1962 Cash recorded another concept album, Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears. He did not write any of these songs except “Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” in which he took the basic folk song of “John Henry” and turned it into a dramatic eightminute masterpiece that shifted tempos and brought this story vividly to life.


The album also contained songs such as “Casey Jones,” “Busted,” “Another Man Done Gone” and the Jimmie Rodgers classic “Waiting for a Train.” In 1963 Johnny Cash began a string of top single hits for Columbia, beginning with “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, and “The Matador,” written by Cash and June Carter, both that year; “Understand Your Man,” “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “Bad News” in 1964; “Orange Blossom Special,” “The Sons of Katie Elder” (the title track from the movie of the same name), and “Happy to Be with You” in 1965; and “The One on the Right Is on the Left” in 1966.

His album Ring of Fire was a huge success, and it contained the TV theme song “The Rebel Johnny Yuma,” which he did not write. The widespread interest in cowboys may have spurred Cash’s interest in Indians. He was part Cherokee, so there was a natural interest, but the 1950s and 1960s also saw Indians and the Old West reexamined through a number of movies. Johnny Cash had written “Old Apache Squaw” in 1957 while in Tucson on tour and recorded it in 1959.

It was released on the album Songs of Our Soil. But Cash’s interest in Indians was spurred further when he heard Indian songwriter Peter LaFarge performing in 1963 in Greenwich Village at the Gaslight Club. This is the same evening Cash first met Bob Dylan. Back in Nashville, Columbia promotion man and Cash friend Gene Ferguson played him “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” written by LaFarge.

This song tells the story of an Arizona Pima Indian who was one of those who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, an incident immortalized in a photograph and monument at Arlington National Cemetery. But when Hayes returned home he faced discrimination, humiliation and poverty. An alcoholic, Hayes died a tragic death, drowned in a ditch. On March 5, 1964, Cash went into the studio and recorded “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” a protest song in the era of protests.


The song was released in July of that year and climbed to the number three position on the Billboard charts, spending 20 weeks there. On June 29 and 30 Cash was back in the studio recording the rest of the album that became Bitter Tears. During this same period of time, Peter LaFarge was in Nashville at the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, where the subject of Indian injustice received attention.

Johnny Cash landed in the midst of the civil rights movement by recording songs about Indians, although he also stood up for blacks and against the southern racism that was in the daily news during that time. Cash’s reason for recording a concept album about Indians—indeed, it was an angry album as much about civil rights and protest as about Indians per se—were artistic as well as commercial. In addition to “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” other songs on the album included “Custer,” “Drums” and “White Girl,” all by Peter LaFarge, “The Vanishing Race” by Johnny Horton, and four songs written by Cash: “Big Foot,” “The Talking Leaves,” “Apache Tears” and “Old Apache Squaw.”

“Big Foot” was written after Cash had visited Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of the final Indian “fight.” There, on December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry slaughtered a group of Indians who were led by Big Foot, a chief suffering from pneumonia at the time. Cash wrote this song in a car after leaving the Wounded Knee battlefield on his way to the Rapid City airport. “The Talking Leaves” is the story of Sequoia, the Cherokee who developed a written language for his people.

“Apache Tears” is the story of the eradication of the Apache who lived in the southern Arizona and New Mexico area and who were the last tribe subdued by the army. “Old Apache Squaw” is also the story of the Apaches, told from the very human side of a woman who has seen her family, tribe and heritage killed.


Johnny Cash’s interest in the West and cowboys, which he originally expressed in songs like “Give My Love to Rose” and “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” led to a double album of cowboy songs, Johnny Cash Sings the Ballads of the True West, which he recorded in March 1965. This album includes a number of old cowboy classics, such as “The Streets of Laredo,” “I Ride an Old Paint,” “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” and “Green Grow the Lilacs,” as well as some original songs, “Hiawatha’s Vision,” “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” “Hardin Wouldn’t Run,” “Mean as Hell,” and “Reflections.”

In the liner notes to this album Cash states that the idea for the album came from his producer, Don Law, who also brought Cash some books about the West. Cash read the books as well as back issues of the magazine True West and talked about the West with people like Joe Austell Small, publisher of several western magazines.

When Law called a few months later to ask about the western album, Cash began writing out ideas for songs, using some folk song collections and the advice of Tex Ritter. Cash also spent time in the desert with his jeep, absorbing the landscape of the West before he finished the album. 

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