Music History #11: "The Ballad of Ira Hayes"

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“The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
Written by Pete La Farge (1963)
Performed by Johnny Cash

The Music

Folk singer and songwriter Peter La Farge packed a lot into his thirty-four years on Earth. The son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist was a Korean War vet, a rodeo cowboy, an actor, and a singer who was part of the Greenwich Village folk music boom in the early 1960s. He even co-wrote a song with Bob Dylan, called “As Long As The Grass Shall Grow,” which Johnny Cash recorded. It was Cash who also made La Farge’s “The Ballad Of Ira Hayes” into the folk singer’s most famous song.

La Farge claimed that he was distantly descended from the Narragansett Indian tribe, and had a lifelong fascination with Native American traditions. So the tale of a Native American soldier who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima seemed like natural subject matter for him. Johnny Cash had the hit with it, but the song was also covered by Pete Seeger, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan.

The History

Ira Hayes was born in Arizona in 1923, into a community of Pima Native Americans. After Pearl Harbor, the 18 year old Hayes quit school and enlisted in the Marines. He excelled in parachute training, and his buddies in the service nicknamed him “Chief Falling Cloud.”

Stationed in the South Pacific, Hayes was part of a troop that fought several battles against the Japanese army. On February 23, 1945, he and five fellow Marines climbed Mount Suribachi on the tiny island of Iwo Jima to plant the American flag. The event, as captured by photographer Joe Rosenthal, became one of the most significant images of World War II, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that has endured in photographic (and later statue) form as a symbol of wartime bravery. (The famous photo was actually the second flag-raising of the day on Iwo Jima. The first was also captured on film, but didn’t have quite the same iconic composition).

Of the six men who planted the flag on Iwo Jima, three would later die in combat. The three survivors returned to the home front as heroes, decorated by President Truman and taken on a 32-city celebratory tour.

After the hoopla died down, they returned home. And that’s when the problems started for Ira Hayes.

The Reluctant Hero

Hayes had always been a quiet, introverted man, and back on the reservation he retreated further inside himself. He worked menial jobs. And despite the hundreds of letters he received, and the curious folks driving through the reservation hoping to meet the famous soldier, he kept to himself.

After he appeared in the 1949 John Wayne film Sands of Iwo Jima, in which he played himself, the pressures of his unwanted fame began to take their toll. Hayes turned to the bottle. He was arrested over fifty times for public drunkenness. Later he would say, “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.”

In 1955, Hayes drank himself to death. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

In 1959, Hayes’ plight was captured in a short story called “The Outsider” by William Bradford Huie. Two years later, the story was turned into a movie with Tony Curtis (the film, seen now, looks very un-PC: Curtis is done up in dark make-up and dyed hair).