Cisco in Print
Excerpts from "Woody, Cisco and Me:
Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine"
"Woody, Cisco and Me: Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine" by Jim Longhi was published by University of Illinois Press early in 1997. It is part of a series called "Music in American Life." The book is available via the common used book sources on the internet for about $20 and up as of July, 2003. I read it for free by asking for it at my small-town public library, via the wonderful service called "inter-library loan". It took about ten days for my library to get the book shipped from a library that owned a copy. I'd love to own my own copy, but the budget won't allow that at present.
Mr. Longhi was a buddy of Woody Guthrie and Cisco in New York City in the early '40's. Although he was not really a singer or a guitar picker, Woody and Cisco taught him enough in a short time so that he could help them perform on the troop ships crossing the Atlantic in 1943.
Most fans know that Woody and Cisco made a few voyages as merchant seamen during WW II. One ship was torpedoed and another struck a mine. This wonderful book makes that year come to life in excellent detail, because Jim Longhi was a witness, and turned out to be a good writer with a great memory. His depiction of Woody reveals a man who had been somewhat famous within a small circle of folk singers and leftists for about three years, since the release of his "Dust Bowl Ballads" album (on RCA Victor 78 RPM discs) in 1940. Woody was, in '43, only a decade away from being shut down as a performer by Huntington's Chorea. The Woody of these three voyages into danger is almost totally admirable -- more than a bit nutty, but in a brave, sweet way.
More relevant for fans of Cisco, this book represents the closest thing we have so far to a decent biography of Cisco. We don't get to learn a lot about Cisco's childhood, but his personality and strength and decency are quite evident. The troubles he had in coping with his severe vision loss while serving food to hungry troops, singing in bad light for lonely soldiers, and escaping a variety of dangers are well-described. One gets not only a good look at what it was like to sign up as civilian laborers on these convoy troop carriers, but a glimpse of the New York folksinging life off the ships as well. Most of the book occurs in the year before Woody and Cisco began recording for Moses Asch. Their singing appearances are confined to union meetings and Russian-U.S. friendship gigs and parties to raise the money for rent. But on the ships, the trio's traditional folksong concerts comfort the anxious troops, even in the midst of U-boat attacks on the convoy. The boys also strike a blow for civil rights which took guts.
Jim Longhi is able to poke fun at his youthful self in this memoir, and comes off as a good man, zealous in his politics and out-of-place both as a folksinger and a mess attendant. Some of the minor characters who populate this book are simply wonderful, especially a guy he calls "Courtroom Kelly." The darn book has just about every element one could want: war, music, humor, exotic places, danger, hints of love and sex (not necessarily in that order), fantastic coincidences and political debates which end in riot or fistfights. In skilled hands, this would make a terrific movie.
In 1968, I was sent to Vietnam on a troop ship named "The General John Pope." It had been carrying soldiers across the Pacific on and off since 1945. Hundreds of thousands of vets from three wars and the years inbetween them had a similar experience to mine: overcrowding, fear, loneliness, seasickness, boredom, bad sleeping conditions. My journey lasted more than 30 days, so Jim Longhi's book resonated with me. It also made me appreciate for the first time the work that the mess crew and other civilians did to help us endure such a voyage. Although there was no danger from enemy subs, it was no picnic getting to the combat zone in that fashion. Sadly, we had no Woody, Cisco and Jim to sing for us. Gladly, I read Jim's history of a year in which he did unglamorous brave duty in the company of two giants doomed to tragic fates and early deaths. Thank goodness he lived to tell the tale.