Johnny Cash, Bitter Tears and Human Rights

First off, in my un-humble opinion, Johnny Cash was one of the most important and authentic of American artists. He’s up there with such folk, country and blues legends as Leadbelly, Jimmie Rogers, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Bessie Smith and Hank Williams. Last night, I watched a documentary, Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears, based on the book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears by Antonino D’Ambrosio, and learned more about Johnny Cash and about two albums I had not heard of before.

bittertearsThe first is Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, a concept album Johnny recorded in 1964 about the plight of Native Americans. Johnny wrote two of the songs, co-wrote another with Johnny Horton (Battle of New Orleans fame) but most of the tracks were written by folksinger Peter La Farge.

It is tempting to think of Johnny Cash as just a country music artist who used to hang out with cool people like Bob Dylan, but he was much more – a true original, an innovator and trailblazer. It’s also tempting to think that the concept album was an invention of the rock era, pioneered by the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper), The Who (The Who Sell Out) and others. However, when Bitter Tears was released in 1964, Johnny had already recorded two concept albums: Ride This Train (1960) and Blood Sweat and Tears (1963). Perhaps the only artist to beat him to the punch in the area of concept albums was Frank Sinatra.

The reaction to Bitter Tears back then was so hostile, and Johnny was so disappointed by the criticism he received, that he took out a full page ‘ad’ in Billboard magazine where he did not mince any of his words to music industry execs, critics, and DJ’s:

This ad, go ahead and call it that, cost like hell. Would you or those pulling the strings for you, go to the mic with the new approach? That is, listen again to the record? Yes, I cut records to try for sales. Another word we could use is success. Regardless of the trade charts, the categorizing, classifying, and the restrictions of airplay, this is not a country song, not as it is being sold. It is a fine reason, though, for the gutless to give it thumbs down.”

The second album I learned about is a 2014 re-recording, Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited, featuring Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Milk Carton Kids, and Kris Kristofferson, among others.

Like Joe Henry, the producer of the tribute LP, I was familiar with Johnny Cash’s song The Ballad of Ira Hayes, that tells the story of Ira Hamilton Hayes, a Pima Indian and a United States Marine who was one of the six soldiers captured in the famous photograph of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. Ira Hayes died of drunk and suffering from acute alcoholism in a field on the Pima reservation on a cold January night in 1955. However, I was only vaguely aware of the 1964 concept album and knew nothing of the story behind it.

In the documentary, Joe Henry says,

At that moment, in 1964, the Civil Rights act had just been signed, and he [Cash] didn’t understand why people didn’t equate what was happening with Native Americans with what was happening in this country to African Americans. His point of view was that this is the same issue. This is human rights.”

Wednesday, Amnesty International released their annual State of the World report for 2014/2015 in which they state that International protection of human rights is in danger of unravelling as short-term national self-interest and draconian security crackdowns have led to a wholesale assault on basic freedoms and rights.

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, adds

Your rights are in jeopardy: they are being treated with utter contempt by many governments around the world. Millions of people are suffering enormously at the hands of states and armed groups, while governments are shamelessly painting the protection of human rights as a threat to security, law and order or national ‘values.'”

Our challenge globally and locally is to protect human rights in the future and to heal from the abuses of the past.  I don’t know if Johnny Cash thought of it in terms of ‘healing,’ but that was probably his general idea.

Sometimes his recordings are so spare in style and instrumentation that the only thing you have to hold on to his magnificent voice and the words. I don’t think Johnny is remembered as an especially gifted songwriter, but he wrote what I feel is one of the most simple and beautiful songs of all time, I Still Miss Someone, and read these lyrics from his Apache Tears:

The victor and the loser came by here
No head stones, but these bones bring the mascalero death moans
See the smooth black nuggets by the thousands lying here
Petrified, but justified are these apache tears

In Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears, currently showing on PBS stations, Native American singer and composer, sums it all up very well:

How do we actually deal with our situations right now . . . How do we heal that? How do we say, okay, let’s become whole again? And that’s what makes this land sacred . . . How do we change the hearts and minds and souls of those who are going to come after us? It begins with the thought.”

A Johnny Cash poster I made a few years ago:




Principles for Leadership

Etre harcelee par la presse is a French expression that means “to be hounded by the press.” That’s what has been happening with me the past several weeks. The news media won’t leave me alone. They all want to know who I am endorsing in the 2016 Presidential election. To get them off my back, I have decided to reveal the candidate I will support:

No one.

I don’t think I have been so underwhelmed by a crowd of contenders before.

I would love to see a woman president, but to be honest, I have had enough of the Clintons to last a couple of lifetimes. And if you think Obama was one of modern history’s most polarizing presidents, just wait until Hilary wins . . . man, oh, man.

I agree with most of what Bernie Sanders has to say, but I can’t help but feel that anyone who identifies himself as a socialist has little hope of winning a general election in 2016. Besides, Bernie comes off as kind of grouchy and we have enough of that with the GOP (Grouchy Obstructionist Party).

Speaking of which, with the bag of mixed nuts the GOP is serving up this year, the grip on reality has never been looser.

In Chapter 66 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “If a sound person wishes to become the leader of the people, that person first displays humility before them.”

Lao Tzu’s work contains many other timeless principles for leadership. There are countless seminars and courses, and a multitude of books devoted to distilling lessons from the Tao Te Ching on this subject, as well as daily life. Fortune 500 corporations, including IBM, Mitsubishi, and Prudential, have long used the book as a management/leadership training text.  Our politicians should take a look at it.

I don’t recall where I ran across this but it’s a nice compilation Lao Tzu’s essential leadership teachings:

Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership

lao-tzu-2016bThe best leaders are those whose presence is barely known by others.

Leaders value their words highly and use them sparingly.

Because a leader has faith in others, then others have faith in his or her leadership.

When a leader’s work is done, others will say: we did it ourselves.

Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it.

To lead people, walk beside them.

Love people and lead without cunning or manipulation.

The ancient leaders who followed the Tao did not give people elaborate strategies, but held to a simple practice. It is hard to lead while trying to be clever. Too much cleverness undermines the people’s harmony. Those who lead without such strategies bring benefit to all.

By being lower, rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams, thus they rule over them all.  Therefore, it is a wise leader, wishing to be above the people, who by his words puts himself below them, and, wishing to be before them, follows them.

Leaders go first by putting themselves last. It is from their selflessness that they are able to fulfill themselves.

It is good to empower people, so that no one is wasted.

The best leaders are effective because they do not try to seize power. They are effective because they are not conceited, proud or arrogant.

The wise keep their word and do not pressure others.


As Space-Time Goes By

There’s this movie where a character named Sam sings a song that become rather well known, but not all of the original lyrics by Hubert Hupfeld found their way on the soundtrack:

Arthur “Dooley” Wilson as Sam in Casablanca

Yet we get a trifle weary
With Mr. Einstein’s theory
So we must get down to earth at times

This is true, but fortunately there are some folks here on earth who have their eyes glued to the stars . . .

Some of them work with The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a joint project of MIT and Caltech, and they have been looking for gravitational waves.

In his Theory of General Relativity, Einstein predicted that violent cosmic events would set off gravitational waves, which are vibrations or ripples in the fabric of space-time.

No one thought it was possible to see these ripples, let alone confirm their reality. But it was announced Thursday that scientists have detected gravitational waves, confirming Einstein’s prediction and also answering the question, how smart was Einstein? Really smart.

According to a paper just published in Physical Review Letters, “On September 14, 2015 at 09:50:45 UTC the two detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory simultaneously observed a transient gravitational-wave signal.”

Evidently, in general relativity, when two black holes “merge”, they produce a Kerr black hole that spins as “quasicircular inspirals” (I think that means to spin inwardly) and these were “predicted uniquely by Einstein’s equations.”

This computer-generated image from Caltech shows the ripples in space-time created by colliding black holes.

The gravitational-wave signal detected by the LIGOs were ripples of a super-massive collision of two black holes from 1.3 billion years ago. It is astounding to think about.

I suppose it’s rather obvious to say that without thought and other sensory qualities, we could not apprehend space. But what we think of as being space is often mistaken, as is the case with the Buddhist concept of sunyata or emptiness. Space is not empty in the literal sense; rather it is completely filled with an intangible, seemingly infinite continuum that we call time. Buddhism teaches that space and time are inseparable, and in this way, they are both empty because neither has its own independent reality.

Space is not nothingness and neither is emptiness. As far as time goes, I’m not sure because in quantum physics time does not exist, so it might be nothing.  Einstein, the Nagarjuna of modern science, destroyed the idea of time as a universal constant.  That’s the ultimate truth.

On the relative truth level, time is the extent along which change progresses and without change then time could not be experienced or observed.

Anyway, we can find significant intersections between Theory of Relativity and the Buddhist concepts of Interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) and emptiness, and if we dig deeper, we can also discover that Einstein’s thinking was similar to the Buddhist philosophy in some other ways:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

– Albert Einstein

Now, according to the song, when two lovers have a merger (technical term: woo)

They still say, “I love you”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by


Cry, Cry, Cry

cryingA while back Gloria Steinem created a minor stir, when during an interview, she suggested that it should be all right to cry at the office. There is an unfortunate stigma associated with displaying tears in public. For men, crying has never been acceptable. Men who cry are babies. We expect women to cry but have no respect for them when they do. They’re “emotional.”

To my mind, Buddhism is focused on denying or suppressing the emotions only to the extent that we want to control disturbing, negative and dangerous emotions that are rooted in craving and egoism. But the idea is not to deny all emotion. Even though the stereotypical image of a Buddhist, particularly a monk, is that of a person always calm and collected, who does not show emotion in public, I have cried privately and publicly during the past two weeks. During my words at my father’s memorial service, I had to pause a few times as my emotions ran over. I have seen one of the most famous monks in the world cry (see The Dalai Lama is Crying).

In a book titled Destructive Emotions, author Daniel Goleman quotes the Dalai Lama,

Distinguishing between constructive and destructive emotions is right there to be observed in the moment when a destructive emotion arises-the calmness, the tranquility, the balance of the mind is immediately disrupted. Other emotions do not destroy equilibrium or the sense of well-being as soon as they arise, but in fact enhance it, therefore would be called constructive.”

This is what is called emotional intelligence, a term popularized by Goleman, a Buddhist psychologist, in the late 90s. According to Wikipedia, “Emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) is the ability of individuals to recognize their own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.”

Is crying a constructive emotion? The Buddha made the point that the intention behind an act determines whether or not it is constructive or destructive. Crying does have some positive benefits. I’ve read that crying can be helpful as an emotional release and that crying lowers stress and releases toxins from the body.

In her interview, Gloria Steinem doesn’t actually say it’s all right to cry at the office, but it is implied. She does say, “We try to stay in control too long . . .”

A writer for the NY Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley, called Steinem’s remarks “lunatic advice.” I hope this woman is not related to me, because I’ve always been in favor of a certain amount of lunacy. And Steinem is right, for control can be an attachment every bit as destructive as craving.

The Buddhist Way is the Middle Way. So, like Matthew Mcconaughey says in the car commercial with where he’s driving down a road in Griffith Park , “You’ve just gotta find that balance.”

In this video, Neil Young gets all rockabilly on the subject: