The song “The Talking Leaves” appears on Johnny Cash’s twentieth album Bitter Tears: Ballads of American Indians, recorded in 1964.
Bitter Tears is one of Cash’s most obscure and overlooked albums, but is considered by many to be one of his masterpieces (a view I share). The album documents the historical struggles and the emotional, spiritual and military devastation inflicted on Native Americans by white America.
It is a profoundly political album. The album, which is a cry for acknowledgement and justice, was one of Cash’s favourite works. Speaking about the album Cash noted:
” By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage. I felt every word of those songs… I meant every word, too. I was long past the point of pulling my punches. the final result was an album of protest ballads, the ‘Indians side of the story'”.
Antonino D’Ambrosio has written a superb book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Heart about the story behind the album, which he notes is a virtually unknown, but pivotal moment in Cash’s career.
Bitter Tears included 5 songs written by the Native American singer songwriter Peter La Farge, including the iconic song The Ballad of Ira Hayes, about a Pima Indian who became an instant celebrity after participating in the raising of the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during the Pacific War. Ira Hayes died a penniless alcoholic and in poverty in an Indian reservation a few years after the war.
Cash wrote three songs on the album, including The Talking Leaves which is a spoken ballad that tells the story of Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian who created a written Cherokee language system to enable his people to communicate using their own language. Sequoyah created the first written Indian language.
Cash delivers a remarkable performance using a spoken style of singing, supported only by acoustic instrumentation, including Norman Blake on dobra and the Carter Family, including June Carter his future wife, providing backing vocals.
Cash tells the story of Sequoyah, a severely disabled Cherokee Indian who despite never learning to read or write spent 15 years developing a written Cherokee syllabary. So devoted was he to the development of 86 language symbols and vocabulary that he became a recluse and endured ridicule by friends, family and other Cherokees.
In 1821 the Cherokee Nation adopted Sequoyah’s syllabary and thousands of Cherokees learned to read and write using his system.
Sequoyah’s development of the Cherokee language enabled the Cherokee nation to translate material from English into Cherokee and led to the development of the first Indian newspaper published in the US.
Sequoyah became a distinguished leader and statesman for the Cherokee people. He died in 1843.
On its release in 1964 Bitter Tears created significant controversy. Coming just 12 months after his massive hit Ring of Fire, such a political album upset Cash’s record company who failed to promote the album. Radio stations refused to play it and the country music industry and many of his traditional fans ignored the music, complaining that they did not want to hear songs about how Americans mistreated Native Americans.
The country music industry and radio stations tried to censor the album. Cash was outraged and penned a passionate letter to the record industry and radio stations in which he linked the treatment of Native Americans to what was happening to African Americans in the American south. He also spoke about the Vietnam War. The Southern country music industry and his mainly southern fans were further outraged and the album was largely ignored.
As Antonino D’Ambrosio notes in his book Cash’s album was one of the first albums to bring activist protest oriented folk music into the conservative, patriotic country music establishment. This explains why the album was largely ignored and forgotten in Cash’s musical lexicon.
But this is one of the great albums of Cash’s career. And The Talking Leaves is a magnificent song, on a magnificent album. Listening to it again in 2013 is a reminder of the profound authenticity, power and humanity of Johnny Cash’s music.
The Talking Leaves
Sequoia’s winters were sixteen silent tongue spirit clean
He walked at his father’s side
Across the smoking battle ground where red and white men lay all around
So many here had died
The wind had scattered around snow white leaves upon the ground
Not leaves like leaves from trees
Sequoia said what can this be what’s the strange thing here I see
From where come leaves like these
Sequoia turned to his father’s eyes and he said father you’re wise
From where come such snow white leaves
With such strange marks upon these squares
Not even the wise owl could put them there
So strange these snow white leaves
His father shielding his concern resenting the knowledge Sequoia yearned
Crumbled the snow white leaves
He said when I explain then it’s done these are talking leaves my son
The white men’s talking leaves
The white man takes a berry of black and red
And an eagle’s feather from the eagle’s bed
And he makes bird track marks
And the marks on the leaves they say carry messages to his brother far away
And his brother knows what’s in his heart
They see these marks and they understand the truth in the heart of the far off man
The enemies can’t hear them
Said Sequoia’s father son they weave bad medicine on these talking leaves
Leave such things to them
Then Sequoia walking lightly followed his father quietly but so amazed was he
If the white man talks on leaves why not the Cherokee
Vanished from his father’s face Sequoia went from place to place
But he could not forget
Year after year he worked on and on till finally he cut into stone
The Cherokee alphabet
Sequoia’s hair by now was white his eyes began to lose their light
But he taught all who would believe
That the Indian’s thoughts could be written down
Just as the white men’s there on the ground and he left us these talking leaves
words copyright Johnny Cash