Ballad Of Ira Hayes – Johnny Cash

Popular American music, the 1960s, and war likely conjure up a few clear images for you. I’ll wager that the images pertain mostly to Vietnam and the numerous anti-war songs of the decade. For me, the most interesting such song of that decade belonged to my favorite American singer, my favorite American artist, Johnny Cash.

It was the song, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.” Listen to it at the link below.

Cash’s powerful voice, tinged with a haunting edge of echo, drum, and flute, calls up a story that must be told.

Ira Hayes was a Native American, an Indian, who joined the US Marines during World War II. Hayes was among the Marines who fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific theater. He suffered, and inflicted, unimaginable horror. Such is the reality of war in every century.

Cash tells the story of Hayes’s courage in climbing Mount Suribachi and helping to plant the American flag at its crest. The story could end there and leave you breathless for, as Cash sings, “among the men who held it high was the Indian, Ira Hayes.” The sight became an iconic image, an imprint on the American mind of the last half of the twentieth century. Nothing was more stirring than the fact that a Native American was part of the scene.

An old military saying is that the enemy gets a vote. I’ll adapt that for this story—irony gets a vote, too. And here irony votes with a vengeance.

Cash goes on to sing about what happened to Hayes upon his return to the United States. He’s celebrated as a hero–“everybody shook his hand,” as Cash sings it—but he couldn’t gain a foothold in a peacetime life alien to him. Aside from serving as a symbol, Hayes couldn’t find meaningful work. He slipped back into a prewar habit of excessive drinking. He died drunk, drowning in a shallow pool of water.

Such was how Hayes died. But what his death meant was more nebulous. Cruel randomness. One man’s addiction. A soldier’s struggle with a later generation’s label of post traumatic stress disorder. An Indian’s singular episode from the nightmare of European colonization and American nationhood. Any or all of these can serve to express the life of the death of Ira Hayes.

Hayes’s background points to another aspect of history in the song. Peter La Farge, an Indian activist, wrote the song in the early 1960s. The piece belonged to the broader awakening of various groups that strained for greater equality—including blacks, women, Hispanics, homosexuals, and more. La Farge hoped the song would awaken public support for Indian rights, much as would happen with author Vine Deloria’s best-selling work from 1969, Custer Died For Your Sins.

Cash also joined in the effort. He included the song on an album crafted for Indian-oriented music, Bitter Tears. Cash confronted powerful country music figures and demanded that they embrace the song. After learning that radio stations were banning the song, Cash paid for a full-page advertisement in Billboard magazine that called for radio stations to play the ballad. The song further embodied Cash’s tendency to challenge the limits of country music and of popular music generally.

In the end, two long journeys mark the life and death of Ira Hayes. The first was from his life as a Pima Indian on a dirt-poor reservation in Arizona to the top of Mount Suribachi on Okinawa. The second was from the shallow pool of water where he died to the site of his burial, Arlington National Military Cemetary near Washington DC. Of the two journeys, which has the greatest meaning to you?