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A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash's Political Roots

Antonino D'Ambrosio, the author of "A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of "Bitter Tears," " talks about the intersections of politics and pop.

Like many people, I came to politics—and writing about politics–through music. I discovered punk rock, and it led me to different ways of thinking about the world. Music has always been a way to keep alive the stories of people and places, creating a rich, living history that textbooks can never match.

Antonino D’Ambrosio, like me, discovered Johnny Cash after a lifetime of punk rock, and in his new book, A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, he weaves together the threads of American folk music and popular song, street protest and social justice movements, and the painful history of American colonialism into one compelling tale: a story of one man’s journey but also of all the people who literally or by taking part in that history contributed to the making of an amazing protest record.

Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian wasn’t one of Johnny Cash’s best-known records, but D’Ambrosio chose to tell its story because it showed a side of Cash that most people don’t know. He spoke to Sarah Jaffe about the book, Cash, and the impact of music on American political consciousness.

Sarah Jaffe: Can you tell us how you started to think about writing about music and politics together?

Antonino D’Ambrosio: For me, music was the point of entry to seeing the world in a much broader way. Music early on, particularly the Clash, showed me that the world was this wonderful place and we were all interconnected, interdependent. It really challenged my narrow view of things, when I was only 12 years old. It’s something that I’ve seriously held on to throughout the rest of my life, something that inspired and motivated me to engage in a way that is not sometimes so heavy and hard.

Music is fun and exciting, and it helped me realize that some of the most important issues of the day are in the music that you’re listening to. Certainly in punk, but also Johnny Cash, who I came to later when he was doing his American Recordings. It was a transformative experience for me and underscored how important music is. There’s this prophetic, timeless quality to Cash. It touches your soul.


I’d never really paid attention to folk music or traditional music. It was another experience for me, how amazingly talented storytellers all these musicians were, Pete Seeger, Dylan, of course Cash, and Peter La Farge, the guy that wrote “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” It’s a very powerful thing that you can tell a story like the Ira Hayes story, this tragic tale, a metaphor of the United States’ injustice toward Native people, and tell a story in 3 minutes and 41 seconds that has all that history packed into it. All of that came together. There’s a lot of power in art, trying to achieve telling the truth and music I think is the best at it.

SJ: This book ties together so many threads, so many social movements, that people might not think about being connected.

AD:That’s a big thing for me in terms of my work. That’s something that I did with the Clash book and I do with my films as well, really challenge the calcified bits, stereotypes of how you perceive things, the one-dimensional approach. It’s a trick to keep us separated as people. On a social-political level, it’s very effective to make you think you’re independent, not connected to each other, but that’s not true at all. In my work I try to create a framework. The Cash book itself, that’s just a frame to build a house to tell that story of that time in America.

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