Joe Henry on the sound of Old Spirits

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 12/02/2013, 04:01pm

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The Native American civil rights movement of the mid-1960s percolated under the African-American civil rights movement, but it did not go unnoticed by Johnny Cash.

In 1964 Cash recorded “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian,” a collection of country-folk protest songs, including “Ira Hayes,” the Peter LaFarge ballad about the Native American soldier who planted the flag in Iwo Jima, died as an impoverished alcoholic. (The Indian Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968.). The record’s final track “The Vanishing Race” was written by Cash and Johnny Horton (“Battle of New Orleans,” “North to Alaska”)

Songwriter-producer Joe Henry is embarking on a re-creation of “Bitter Tears” for Sony Masterworks.

“It was a much maligned record,” Henry said last week before coming to Chicago to appear in a rare acoustic show at 8 p.m Dec.4 at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph. “Columbia (Records) tried to block it from being released. Columbia now wants to reissue it with the attention it deserves. They’ve hired me to produce a companion re-interpretation of the whole record with multiple artists. I was hoping to be doing that last month, but I want to do as much of it with people in the room together as possible. That’s a dastardly puzzle to try to assemble.”


The record was the subject of the 2009 Antonio D’Ambrosio book “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears.” There’s no word yet on artists, but I’d bet on Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.

“I’m aiming to be in the studio at the end of January,” Henry said. “I think there will be a session in Nashville. A small portion of it will happen in California. I couple of the artists I’ve approached say, ‘Me bringing my voice on a track after the fact does not connect me to what you are describing.’ I don’t want them to send me a file. It’s going to be as communal as possible, which is going to be difficult for some artists I’m talking to. But I’m determined.”

Henry’s quick week-long acoustic tour took him to Minneapolis (Dec. 3), Ann Arbor (Dec. 5) and Seattle (Dec. 7). The University of Michigan graduate has produced Solomon Burke’s 2002 Grammy winning “Don’t Give Up On Me,” Allen Toussaint and Rodney Crowell. He should produce Bob Dylan. His warm, empathetic 2009 productions of the Carolina Chocolate Drops (“Genuine Nero Jig” and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (“A Stranger Here”) won Grammy awards.

Here is my favorite Joe Henry song:

What is the sound Henry is  hearing across America?

“I don’t listen to the radio and I don’t hear much in the streets,” he answered. “My sense–and it might be the circle I run in–I think there’s a resurgence in folk music. That may be because I have a 22-year-old son (Levon) who lives in Brooklyn (N.Y.) who is an incredibly dedicated jazz musician who lives and breathes the Harry Smith anthology. All night long all day he just wants to play (Mississippi John Hurt’s) ‘Spike Driver’s Blues’ after four years of a jazz specific performing arts high school and three years of a bachelor’s program at The New School of Jazz in New York. He just wants to play Gary Davis and (Mississippi) John Hurt. His engagement with music has never been higher.”

Levon Henry is the son of Henry and his wife Melanie Ciccone, the sister of Madonna.

“Just like when I come off a tour I might be really steeped in the atmosphere of music, but I don’t hear my voice in that moment,” Henry continued. “So I turn somewhere else. It’s like everybody pulling their hair out with the new Dylan bootleg series of ‘Self Portrait.’ Why would the ‘poet of our generation’— I would never call him that—be singing songs he didn’t write, old folk songs about having a still in the woods. You listen to that music and you can hear how reinvigorated he is by his original love of songs. You can hear him stepping away from the burden of everyone’s expectation of what he owes the culture in this moment. He’s so free. He’s so delighted. He’s trying to realign himself to the original impulse. It’s the most natural thing in the world. I think my son is doing that. I think a lot of us are doing that.


fxhenry-CST-120313 (1)

Joe Henry, courtesy of the artist

“I’m about to be 53 (Dec. 2) and I’m listening to the same music in some ways that I did when I was 15; which is (Van Morrison’s) ‘Astral Weeks,’ Woody Guthrie and Charles Mingus.

“It’s no surprise to me.”