It is not an unfamiliar situation for us that archaic peoples who had settled in this geography centuries ago were subjected to genocide, forced to exile, their properties and lands were confiscated thus and so their culture and civilisation were intended to be wiped out.
When this project can not fully succeed, it is also not uncommon that, the same policy is maintained through insidious methods like repression and assimilation.
It should also not be forgotten, that these persons have been treated as a second class person and thus been exposed to discrimination during military service and on top of it got murdered.
Yet despite everything there are still ones who can say “We are still here”.
The natives of North America have been slaughtered, deterritorialized and soon after been incarcerated in reserves. Snatched away from their roots and struggling to survive under inhuman circumstances they had great difficulty in maintaining their identities as their traditions, customs and culture have fainted.
Johnny Cash, the opponent music icon of the U.S has made an album in 1964 drawing attention to the situation yet the Americans not having the courage to confront the issue have chosen to turn a deaf ear to the record “Bitter Tears”.
50 years later a group of musicians have recognized that the message Johnny Cage wished to give was unfortunately still a current issue and therefore reinterpreted the pieces in Cash’s album. Also a book which author and documentary director Antonino D’Ambrosio has written on the issue seems to have a big impact on this occasion.
Visual arts maker and producer D’Ambrosio who has not settled with this has also shot a documentary film named We're Still Here: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited reflecting the entire process.
Making its debut in the Capital of Netherlands on IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam); one of the world’s biggest documentary festivals, has once again referred to the progress have to be made in protecting the rights of the oppressed against the racist wave which has regained strength in the U.S and whole world.
Scratching out the tabu
Practices which the natives of North America had been exposed to and the politicians and the society of the U.S. chose to erase from their memory, had not escaped Cash’s attention. The marginal artist, especially known for his songs and concerts concerning the conditions in prisons and defending prisoners’ rights, had recorded the album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian drawing attention to the issue, in which he also had reinterpreted many songs from Peter La Farge whom he had admired for his activist attitude.
Works of art, which La Farge had constituted on the basis of his personal background had not attracted great attention till then.
Although on peak of his career, Cash’s struggle had also not been appreciated, his songs had not been played on the radio and the record company had not made any promotion. Cash, flamed up over the situation, had sent a very bitter and sharp letter to Billboard, the most popular music magazine of its time, accusing the editors of cowardice. Over being ignored, Cash has bought all of his records himself, placed a copy of his letter inside and sent the records with the letters back to distribution. Meanwhile the Country Music Union had threatened him of terminating his membership at the union.
Hitting the nerves
The Ballad of Ira Hayes, the main song in La Farge’s album to earn great reputation over Cash’s reinterpretation, had focussed on a war hero on the Iwo Jima Island where the U.S. and Japan had battled. Within the legendary dynamic which became immortal with the photo of soldiers planting the flag on the top of the Island’s Suribachi Mountain and the monument inspired from this, it was Ira Hayes whom we see in the back of the group of native North Americans serving the U.S. army. He excessively had been honoured as the Second World War hero of his country yet had died from alcohol intoxication at the end of his miserable life he had spent in the reserve the Pima tribe had been mounted.
As Long As the Grass Shall Grow, the opening piece of the album, emphasized that the promises made to the natives by the Washington Agreement had yet again not been kept. The song addressed to the submerging of the land belonging to the Senaca natives following the construction of the Kinzua Dam.
The natives of North America had cherished Cash and his Bitter Tears as one of the first white voices which turned out to be the expression of the wrongfulness they were exposed to and united with his songs expressing their emotions which had been oppressed for ages.
Human rights defender Johnny Cash insistently kept singing especially his song about Ira Hayes on his concerts till the later stages of his career yet La Farge who also used to get on well with Bob Dylan, had died at an early age.
Bitter Tears once again
Disturbing the comfort of the conservative society in a way, the album Bitter Tears, is being reinterpreted after 50 years by artists including Kriss Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Bill Miller of Mohican origin, Steve Earle and Rhiannon Giddens and rubbing the essentiality of bringing Cash’s message from the past into the present into the face of the U.S society. Although not on the Look Again to the Wind album, Cash’s daughter Rosanne intimately shares her memories about her father and the frustrating period.
Having published the book Let the Fury Have the Hour: Joe Strummer, Punk and the Movement that Shook the World before, D’Ambrosio exquisitely reflects the unfortunate case of the protest folk world on the 53-Minutes Documentary. Besides archive footage of Johnny Cash, recording moments of the album bundling up the audience, perceptions and memories of the interpreters and their encouraging attitude for political awareness and taking action make a work of art worth-watching.
This humble documentary will easily be understood and loved in all geographies where a persons are being humiliated and condemned to live like strangers on their mother countries. (MT/HK/DG)
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