900 Miles & Other Railroad Songs/Cowboy Ballads
Smithsonian, the owner of the Folkways catalog, offers the opportunity to get copies of LPs that are not sufficiently mass-market for general release. They are rather pricey at $19.95 each (now reduced to $16.95), though if you have ever tried to take old LPs and put them on CD yourself, you know the process is tricky and time-consuming.
One of their offerings is a 2 10" LP package on 1 CD: 900 Miles and Other Railroad Songs and Cowboy Ballads Sung by Cisco Houston with Guitar.
- 900 Miles
- Gettin' Up Holler
- Wreck of the Old '97
- Hobo Bill
- Great American Bum
- Brave Engineer
- Railroad Bill
- Worried Man Blues
- Old Chisholm Trail
- Diamond Joe
- I Ride an Old Paint
- Little Joe the Wrangler
- Dying Cowboy
- Trouble In Mind
- Sweet Betsy from Pike
- Tying a Knot in the Devil's Tail
Many of these titles are on other compilations, but in quite different performances. Listening to a younger, less vibrant and somewhat tentative Cisco from 1953 is a relevation. He has not been the center of attention much, but was more often woody's backup musician and vocalist. On center stage, he is a bit weak. But the lack of confidence on Hobo Bill, for instance, emphasizes the poignancy of the tale, and to these ears greatly reduces the gooey quality of later versions. The storytelling is straightforward and clear, letting the tale tell itself.
The Cowboy Ballads is a much more interesting collection. Many of these songs are new to me, and I loved them on first listen. Cisco's voice is a bit rougher, less tenor, more cowboy. It sounds as if he has sung these on the trail; the smoke of a campfire and the prickle of the cholla resonates through these songs.
The sound quality is very good. While an occasional pop or click is audible, these sound great. Originally I received only the notes from FA2013, the railroad songs, but an e-mail request brought a package containing the other inserts.
This reissue of two early '50's Folkways 10" LP's by Cisco Houston, custom made by the Smithsonian staff, is worth the dough for any real fan of Houston's or of the songs themselves. The price comes out to about a buck per song, which is what you pay for most CD's by current artists. However, with this purchase, you get a piece of history, you get songs that never really get "old" although most of them are indeed, old, and you get to hear Cisco before his voice developed into the lovely full baritone heard on his late-career "Songs of Woody Guthrie" release. In addition your purchase supports the work of an underfunded arm of America's most important museum. Sound quality is good, Cisco's singing and guitar work are fine, and the tunes are a varied lot. My personal opinion is that this item is almost as good as "Best of the Folkways Years" which the Smithsonian released commercially several years ago. Let's encourage that great institution to offer more of these "two releases on one disc" deals. Maybe if there is a nice demand, the price can drop by five bucks or so.
To see the complete notes from the 900 Miles LP, click here.
To see the complete notes from the Cowboy Ballads LP, click here.