The Ballad of Ira Hayes (sung) by Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was born J.R. Cash on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. He was the son of Carrie Rivers Cloveree and Ray Cash. He had three older siblings Roy, Margaret Louise, and Jack. He also had three younger siblings Reba, Joanne, and Tommy. When I said he was named J.R. Cash, that was actually his name. I read in a couple of different places that his mom wanted to name him Rivers and his dad wanted to name him Ray. I like the name Rivers, I wonder is the parents of Weezer’s lead singer knew about this when they named him Rivers or if it was just coincidence. I also read that his mom wanted to name him John and his dad wanted to name him Ray. It appears his dad was stuck on naming him after himself. They settled on just the initials J.R. as a compromise. I don’t know which is true but the John and Ray make more sense except they could have just named him John Ray Cash… so who knows. J.R. Is what is printed on his diploma. He went by J.R. Until 1950 when he joined the Air Force. The Air Force wouldn’t allow a name comprised of only initials so J.R. Became John R. Cash. When Shawna, my wife, and I were talking about it she made the astute observation that Cash chose what his mother wanted and that was a smart move. I agree.

I have always flirted with going with R.S. as my name. My great-grandfather went by R.S. and in a roundabout way my dad and I are named after him. I say roundabout because our middle names are the same but our first names are different although we have the same first initial. My great-grandfather was named Rosewell Sylvester Lutes and chose R.S., which makes a lot of sense in retrospect. My grandfather, Jimmie, and my grandmother, Elsie, named my dad Ronald Sylvester Lutes. My dad chose to stay with the diminutive Ronnie. I was named Ronald Sylvester Lutes, Jr. and also chose to stick with the diminutive Ronnie. I still don’t like being called Ron. I really do like the sound of R.S. though but I’ve never made the switch.

Back to the real story, J.R. Cash…

The US census of 1930 shows Kingsland, Arkansas had 328 people. Arkansas was hit especially hard by the Great Depression. The Cash family, like many other families, lived in poverty even during the 20s when most of the rest of the country was doing well. The flood of 1927 was followed by a drought and when the stock market crashed in 1929, almost two thirds of Arkansas’s independent farmers lost their farms and fell into tenancy. When FDR was elected as president in 1932 two programs were created, the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the FERA. William Dyess, a Mississippi County plantation owner, suggested to the Arkansas WPA administrator that the federal government should buy 16,000 acres of basically swamp land. The federal government would then give homesteading families about 20 acres to clear and cultivate.

When J.R. was three years old his family moved to the Dyess Colony Resettlement Area, or just Dyess. J.R. went to High School in Dyess and graduated in 1950, he was the class Vice President. Dyess is still around but it only has around 360 people mostly white because the resettlement program, like all New Deal programs, were for white people only. Soon after graduation, J.R., enlisted into the Air Force where he finally became John. He stayed in the military for 4 years as a Morse code operator in Germany and was honorably discharged in 1954.

Cash made his first recordings in 1955 for Sun Records. His first songs were Hey, Porter and Cry! Cry! Cry! Two of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. Fast forward nine years later and the song we are going to talk about today was released on a concept album called Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian. This album focuses on the history of Native Americans in the United States and their problems. Cash believed that his ancestry included Cherokee, which inspired his work on this recording. This album addresses the harsh and unfair treatment of the indigenous peoples of North America by Europeans in the US. Peter La Farge wrote five of the songs including The Ballad of Ira Hayes.

Gather round me people there’s a story I would tell
About a brave young Indian you should remember well
From the land of the Pima Indian
A proud and noble band
Who farmed the Phoenix valley in Arizona land
Down the ditches for a thousand years
The water grew Ira’s peoples’ crops
Until the white man stole the water rights
And the sparkling water stopped
Now Ira’s folks were hungry
And their land grew crops of weeds
When war came, Ira volunteered
And forgot the white man’s greed

Ira Hayes was born in 1923 in Sacaton, Arizona, a town in the Gila River Indian Community. He went to high school at the Phoenix Indian School. Hayes confided to Eleanor Pasquale that he was determined to serve as a United States Marine. Hayes’s father had been in the military during World War I. In 1942 he enlisted in the Marine Corps where he volunteered to be a Marine paratrooper (Paramarine). He got the code name of Chief Falling Cloud during this time.

He was sent to the South Pacific to fight against the Japanese and that’s where this story takes place…

There they battled up Iwo Jima’s hill
Two hundred and fifty men
But only twenty-seven lived to walk back down again

And when the fight was over
And when Old Glory raised
Among the men who held it high
Was the Indian, Ira Hayes

Hayes was at the Battle of Iwo Jima that started in February of 1945 and lasted until March of 1945. The lines here mention one of the most iconic pictures taken during World War II, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, in fact, it was the only photo to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication. The picture was taken by Joe Rosenthal. It was later used for the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954. I guess they used the term Iwo Jima’s hill because Mount Suribachi just wouldn’t have gone very well in the song.

There were two American flags raised on top of Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. The photo that Rosenthal took, and became famous, was the second flag-raising because the first flag was too small. The second flag-raising took place with six total Marines, Ira Hayes being the one in the back helping to push the flag up. There is actually a video as well. I will link to it here.

The lines also mention the horrific death toll that was taken at Iwo Jima. Hayes was part of what was known as Easy Company and he was one of only five Marines remaining out of forty-five men.

After the Battle of Iwo Jima was over Hayes was sent with his unit to Hawaii. While there, President Roosevelt ordered the flag raisers in Rosenthal’s photo be sent immediately to Washington DC to help with public morale. He arrived in DC on April 7th and President Roosevelt died on April 12th. Vice President Harry S Truman became President. Amazingly enough we have another initial person, the S in Harry S Truman was just the S, it didn’t stand for anything. By May 9th, Hayes along with two other survivors were on a bond-selling tour. The bond tour was held in 33 American cities and raised over $26 million to help pay for and win the war.

Hayes appeared briefly as himself in the film Sands of Iwo Jima, that starred John Wayne. Wayne and the three other survivors of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima flew the actual flag that was flown over Mount Suribachi in 1945. This leads us to the last part of Hayes’s life and the fourth verse and chorus of this song.

Then Ira started drinking hard
Jail was often his home
They’d let him raise the flag and lower it
Like you’d throw a dog a bone!
He died drunk one morning
Alone in the land he fought to save
Two inches of water in a lonely ditch
Was a grave for Ira Hayes

Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won’t answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinking Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war

Jail was often Ira’s home. He was arrested 52 times for alcohol intoxication in public places. Hayes had a very hard time after the war and made the statement, “I was sick. I guess I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they’re not coming back. Much less back to the White House, like me.” When he met President Eisenhower in 1954, he was lauded as a hero. A reporter asked him how he liked the pomp and circumstance that surrounded him. He hung his head and said, “I don’t”.

Just two months after meeting Eisenhower, in January of 1955 Hayes was found dead lying near an abandoned adobe hut near his childhood home of Sacaton, Arizona. His cause of death was concluded to be from exposure and alcohol poisoning.

Yeah, call him drunken Ira Hayes
But his land is just as dry
And his ghost is lying thirsty
In the ditch where Ira died

Ira Hayes died a hero at 32 years old. He never felt worthy of his fame and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that led to his alcoholism and thus ends the unfortunate story of Ira Hayes.

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