Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Best of the Vanguard Years

CD Notes by Ed Ward

The music on this disc may shock and surprise contemporary listeners used to a totally different kind of "folk", but it shouldn't. Cisco Houston, the best of whose work for Vanguard is presented here, was a pivotal figure in the folk movement in the US, and without him it's likely that Bob Dylan and his generation of singer-songwriters might have had far different careers.

Gilbert Vandine Houston was born in Wilmington Delaware in 1918, and came of age just in time to get socked in the jaw of the Depression. He'd learned the guitar as a teenager, and, in what seems a cliché today, took it with him when he started hoboing. He had three things going for him: matinee-idol good looks, a fine rounded baritone, and a pretty good finger-picking technique. And like a lot of hobos he wound up on the West Coast, where he met a man who would change his life: Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie.

Whatever it was that prompted Guthrie's arrival in Los Angleles in 1938, he and his famous guitar with the sign "This machine kills fascists" soon showed up in the same place as Cisco Houston, and a lifelong partnership was formed: Houston was a great singer and player, but he wasn't a songwriter. (Of course, few mere mortals are as prolific as Woody Guthrie.) The two not only shared politics and a love of music, but an inability to stay in one place, although they didn't always travel together. But when they did meet up, Cisco eagerly learned Woody's tunes - tunes which make up a significant part of this disc.

What set Cisco Houston apart from many of the folk singers who formed the second wave was not only his age and the authority that brought with it, but his smooth voice and unshowy, but solid, guitar playing. And he also tackled hobo songs: the version of 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' heard here isn't the bowdlerised version we sang in school, but the one the hobos themselves used to sing, complete with jails, free-flowing whiskey, and cigarettes which grow on trees.

Cisco Houston's last triumphs was the epochal 1960 Newport Folk Festival, at which it could be said that the second wave of the folk revival came of age and went forward. Already stricken with cancer at the time, he performed to a crowd of, in effect, his kids. Not long afterwards, he laid down his guitar for the last time. Cisco Houston died in April 1961, back out in California, among the pastures of plenty he'd sung about so often.

See the CD information Best of the Vanguard Years

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