by Mark Eastman
A Brief Look at his Life
Cisco Houston was born in Wilmington, Delaware on August 18, 1918. He was, among other things, a folksinger and that is what he is best known for. He sang cowboy ballads, he sang railroad songs, he sang union songs, he sang of heroes and villains and hobos and killers, he sang the old time songs of the southern Appalachians, he sang children's songs and silly songs and humorous songs; he sang in coffeehouses, colleges and festivals, he sang in plays, he sang on the radio and on television; he sang on many records; he sang in union halls and at political rallies; he sang on our ships during World War II and he sang in India and in England; he sang with Pete and with Sonny & Brownie and he sang with Sis and Gordon and Lee Hays and he sang with his close friend Woody, both in person and on records.
Cisco Talks about Himself
The two most important folk music labels of the 1940's and 1950's were Folkways, founded by Moe Asch in 1948, and Elektra, founded by Jac Holzman in 1950. Both of these labels presented non-commercial folk artists from wide-ranging areas and in diverse styles. Neither Asch nor Holzman founded their labels for the primary purpose of making money; rather it was a labor of love - to record, preserve and disseminate the music. And both labels, from the start, included booklets with their long-play albums, booklets which contained background information and lyrics of the songs, notes about the genre of music, biographical notes on the artists and often photos.
Cisco Houston recorded for Folkways Records from the time he first started making records until he signed with Vanguard toward the end of his career. Some of Cisco's albums contained a booklet in which he wrote a bit about himself. This is what it said:
"Born in Virginia 1918, Mother's side of family from the Virginias. Father's side from the Carolinas. Family moved to California. Heard my grandmother sing folksongs as a child, had an interest in them at an early age. Met Woody Guthrie in California in 1939. We traveled up and down California singing together in the Fruit Pickers lamps and Saloons. We shipped out together in the Merchant Marines during the war. I also have studied acting and have acted in Summer Stock, Broadway, T.V. and Pictures. Have sung in nightclubs, schools, colleges, and concert halls. Had my own T.V. shows and a five day a week radio show over the Mutual Network. Been from coast to coast at least thirty times. Also traveled a good part of the world. Always interested in meeting new people and hearing songs I haven't heard."
Now wait a minute.... You think you've found a mistake here. In the beginning I wrote that Cisco was born in Wilmington, Delaware but his story says that he was born in Virginia. Well, Cisco was born in Delaware, born Gilbert Vandine Houston as a matter of fact, the second of four children. He changed his name in the 1930's after the small California town of Cisco - so small it's not even on the map - located between Reno and Sacramento, high in the mountains 20 miles west of Donner's Pass. Known as Gil before, he became Cisco while visiting the town.
It seems that Cisco never liked to tell anyone that he was born in Delaware under the shadow of the Duponts. He never considered Delaware a place where folksingers or activists should come from and he really didn't have any meaningful Delaware roots or memories, moving with his family to California before he even started grade school.
As a student in Eagle Rock, CA, a suburb of L.A., Cisco was considered very smart. In fact, he was so bright that for years neither his teachers nor his parents realized he had nystagmus, a rare eye condition which made it most difficult for him to read. In reality, he wasn't able to view images clearly straight on; he only had peripheral vision and to read at all, had to turn his head sideways. Because of his intelligence, he was able to memorize his lessons word for word by being a great listener and having a superior memory, successfully hiding from his teachers that he was "blind as a bat".
As Cisco was approaching his teens, the Great Depression hit and struck hard and he was forced to work to help support his family. In 1932, his father, Adrian, left home making life even more of a struggle. A few years later, Cisco and his older brother Slim left home for life on the road. During this time, he began his life of traveling in earnest and while working many different jobs - cowboy, lumberjack, farm worker, and a wide variety of other labor jobs - he began to accumulate his vast knowledge of American folk music.
Back in Los Angeles in 1938, Cisco started to take up acting as a profession and at a local theater group, met actor Will Geer (of The Walton's fame) and the two remained friends for life. The following year they were impressed with a folk singer who they had heard on KFVD radio in Hollywood and the two went to the studio to meet him. That was the beginning of Cisco's close friendship with Woody Guthrie. Together the two of them sang, traveled, help organize union rallies and made visits to New York City, staying with Huddie and Martha Ledbetter while in New York.
Woody Guthrie on Cisco
"In my own mind, I see Cisco Houston as one of our manliest and best of our living crop of ballad and folksong singers. He is showman enough to make the grade and to hold any audience anywhere at anytime. I like Cisco as a man. I like him as a person, and as a funhaving, warmhearted, and likeable human being."
Excerpted from the collection of Moses Asch, Folkways Records.
In 1940, Cisco joined the Merchant Marines. He shipped out numerous times and back in New York, often performed with the Almanac Singers, the pro-union, activist folk group formed by Peter Seeger, Lee Hays, Sis Cunningham and her husband Gordon Friesen. Then World War II broke out and Cisco convinced Woody to join him in the Merchant Marines and the two of them together with another buddy, Jimmy Longhi, shipped out three times during the war. Their ships were torpedoed twice but all escaped serious injury. (Cisco had been devastated when his brother Slim was killed off the coast of Maine during the early days of WWII). Besides doing their assigned duties on the ships, Cisco and Woody were a real boost for morale by organizing impromptu hootenannies and songfests whenever they would get the chance. If you've seen Woody's guitar with "This Machine Kills Fascists" written on it, that's the one he carried with him on throughout his tour of duty with the Merchant Marines.
Cisco on the Merchant Marine
"I saw how starved the men were for their own kind of music. Of course, our stuff was something new. We sang the old songs but the good war songs that came out of the Almanacs was something they went wild about. If we'd had People's Songs Bulletins on the ship we'd have got rid of 3,000 of them --that's how many men we had on board. These guys were landing on the beachhead. They knew that in a few hours a lot of them wouldn't be alive. Singing was the only thing that they could grab hold of."
Excerpted from "Singing on the Ships" by Cisco Houston From People's Songs, Nov. 1948, Vol, III, No. 10
In the above paragraph, Cisco was referring to the last time he shipped out with the Merchant Marines - and the third time with Woody - when they were transporting 3,000 soldiers to France for the 1944 invasion of Normandy.
Cisco's first recording sessions were for Folkways in 1944, the same sessions that produced many of Guthrie's earliest and best recordings. After the War, Cisco continued to act, sing, travel, record a little and live life to the fullest. In 1948, he appeared on Broadway in the play The Cradle Will Rock. In 1954, he was given the opportunity to host a syndicated radio show based in Denver. On November 15, 1954, the Gil Houston show debuted and soon it was fed to 50 radio stations by the Mutual Broadcasting System. But, by mid-year the show was cancelled. Although never proven, blacklisting was suspected when the connection between Gil Houston and Cisco Houston was made. For a few years, Cisco found it difficult to get steady work and returned to California. But he was still recording for Folkways and appearing at colleges, clubs, churches and anywhere he had a chance to be heard.
Very little if anything has been written about Cisco's two brief marriages and I don't believe that he had any children of his own. However, there have been a few romances of his that have made it to print and, most likely, a far greater number of undocumented encounters with women. For Cisco did like the ladies, so it is said, and the ladies liked him but to call him a bachelor would be misusing the term. For Cisco never lived the life of a bachelor as one would tend to perceive a "bachelor". Because the most important things in his life were his music, his causes, his friendships and his ramblings.
Cisco on his Singing
Throughout his career, Cisco was plagued by critics who felt that he wasn't an authentic sounding folk singer, his voice was too good, too professional. He just didn't have that folksy twang, that untrained voice. But nothing could be further from the truth as far as authenticity goes because Cisco experienced first hand many of the things he sang of - cowboy ballads, railroad songs, songs about the great depression and the dust bowl, union songs, patriotic songs and songs about having no home. According to Moe Asch, Cisco would never sell out to "folk professionalism" and change his voice and accents to fit some type of pre-conceived notion. As Cisco said in one of his interviews:
"There's always a form of theater that things take; even back in the Ozarks, as far as you want to go. People gravitate to the best singer...We have people today who go just the other way, and I don't agree with them. Some of our folksong exponents seem to think you have to go way back in the hills and drag out the worst singer in the world before it's authentic. Now, this is nonsense...Just because he's old and got three arthritic fingers and two strings left on the banjo doesn't prove anything."
In 1959, Cisco was invited by the State Department to tour India with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Marilyn Childs. They played to enthusiastic and appreciative crowds and before returning home, Cisco toured England and Scotland.
On June 16, 1960, Cisco hosted a full-hour television special, "Folk Sound U.S.A." on CBS which also featured Joan Baez, John Lee Hooker, Flatt and Scruggs and others. And Cisco was praised as "a great narrator... his songs straightforward and well-handled". Later in the summer, he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and recorded extensively for his new label, Vanguard, his first album being The Cisco Special and a second album, his collection of Woody Guthrie songs.
Cisco on Death
Then Cisco learned that he had terminal cancer. He continued to perform as long as possible but gradually his pain and weakened condition forced him to stop. Yet, less than two months before the end, he entered Vanguard's recording studios one more time to make his final album, the understated, moving, traditional folk masterpiece Ain't Got No Home LP which Cisco never had the chance to hear.
When he knew he was close to the end, Cisco said:
"If you know my situation, which is a matter of weeks, of months at the outside, before the wheel runs off... well, nobody likes to run out of time. But it's not nearly the tragedy of Hiroshima or the millions of people blown to hell in the war, that could have been avoided. These are real tragedies....."
From "Cisco's Legacy" by Lee Hays
Lee Hays on Cisco
In the same piece, published in Sing Out!, Vol. II, No. 4, Oct.-Nov. 1961, Hays wrote:
"Cisco touched people. People who knew him only an hour grieve and are strangely comforted, remembering how Cisco touched them. He knew his own imperfections better than anyone. But he walked with grace through an imperfect world, and the world will be better because of the lives he touched. Through his work, and especially that part of it which he achieved in his last days, when he was in pain, he will continue to touch and move people for time and time to come."
Cisco returned home for the last few weeks of his life and died in San Bernardino, CA on April 28, 1961 at the age of 42. In the press release announcing his death, his friend Harold Leventhal wrote:
"Those of us, and there are many, who have known and worked with Cisco over the past years, have known so few persons about whom one could say he was a truly great guy. As a folksinger, he possessed a remarkable voice....He was indeed a very creative person. A song-writer, singer, union organizer were but a few of the areas in which he excelled. He was above all a genuine person, loved by all, admired by many......"
To Cisco we sing, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You".