An Interview with Les Claypool
Bill Adams, April 17, 2004
EDITOR'S NOTE: In early April, 1961, Les Claypool, a Los Angeles radio personality, taped a discussion with Cisco Houston that lasted more than 28 minutes, for replay on his folk music show that night. Three weeks later, Cisco was dead from the stomach cancer he had been fighting for about a year. The sound quality on the surviving tape is poor, so occasional words and even phrases are unintelligible. Because it was a spontaneous unscripted discussion, the original also features quite a bit of hemming and hawing, false starts to questions and answers, and repetition. I transcribed the following version, using a CD transfer from a tape which had been cleaned up somewhat, but was still hard to hear in spots. I took the liberty of editing and condensing where I felt a perfect full transcription was unnecessary or unavailable or would simply bog down the Cisco fan of today. My estimate is that 95 percent of Cisco's contribution that day is to be found below, and what's missing is not valuable in understanding how he felt on this spring afternoon in the final month of his life.
LES CLAYPOOL: Cisco, when did it all start? When did you first start singing folksongs?
CISCO HOUSTON: I guess my answer in one way might sound like an old cliché, but it isn't the old traditional thing that "My grandmother used to sing these songs." I guess it is true that my people came from a good part of the country -- the Carolinas on my father's side, and the Virginias on my mother's side. The part of the country we usually refer to as "The Fort Knox of Folk Music." I'd heard a lot of these songs ever since I was a kid. My mother had a wonderful voice and always sang around the house, but not so much folk songs. Nobody played instruments or anything. We were not a "folksinging family" as such. It was just the general background...when I got up around 17 or 18, I bought an old cheap guitar. When I really got into it earnestly, because I started out as an actor, also, and still do some acting, was when I met Woody Guthrie, about 1938 out here in Los Angeles.
LES: You came out here pretty early in life, didn't you?
CISCO: I grew up out here, Les. My people left the south when I was about two years old. So I don't really know the south, in the sense of having lived there. But I met Woody in '38. He had a little daily radio program here, on KTMS or something, I forget -- but I really liked him because he was a relief from the great horde of hillbilly singers you'd hear. Woody sang his own songs, that he wrote. It was a straightforward, down-to-earth kind of communication he had with his audience. One day Will Geer, the actor, was out here making a picture, and we decided we'd just go down to the station and haul Woody home with us. He's a guy we ought to know. So we did that. We had a big party out at Will Geer's house. Woody came out, and we started singing together. I knew a lot of the old songs...and we had a good tenor harmony then, and we developed a very fast friendship.
From that point on, we toured the migratory workers camps, with Will Geer and even with Burl Ives. I encouraged Woody to go to New York. I thought he'd be a big hit there. Which he did, soon after that. And I went back to New York. We started singing together...and I started playing guitar. Not as good as he played it, but I learned a lot from Woody, I must admit that. Anybody who associates with Woody over a period of years can actually learn a lot from the guy. He was a great folk poet.
LES: How long did you travel around with Woody?
CISCO: Off and on, over the years, including going to sea together, quite a few years, I guess. We were in New York together for long periods of time, and we traveled to various parts of the world together in the Merchant Marines.
LES: That's what I thought -- you were in the Merchant Marines together.
CISCO: I was in even before Woody got in. He got his papers and came to sea with us. And we had a great time.
LES: Cisco, what about the Almanac Singers? Weren't you with them for a while?
CISCO: I wasn't with them when they began, in the early '40's. That was Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Woody Guthrie, Bess Hawes...they were going pretty strong already when later, I made a couple of appearances with them. I was at sea most of the time they were active. I started going to sea about 1940...long before Pearl Harbor, actually before we were in World War II. I'd just be in and out of town while the Almanacs were in operation.
LES: There's a story about you that's on your new Vanguard recording, the one I've been playing on the show a few times, and which we'll be doing tonight when we play this tape, too. It's about you being out here one time, and you had a guitar, and you met some fellas on the road...
CISCO: Oh, yeah (laughs.) I'd been up in Washington before that, and I'd worked on a hop farm. I'd saved a few bucks by staying cold and hungry on the way down here, saved a lousy three or four dollars to buy this guitar when I got back. I went down to Main Street and paid three dollars -- he wanted five, but took the three. So I was hitch-hiking across the country to go to New York with this thing. I knew three or four chords. People would give me rides, and I really didn't know much about what I was doing.
It was in the middle of Kansas somewhere. Anytime guys saw a guitar, they usually pulled up and asked you to sing for your ride. I wasn't really any good then. I couldn't play the damn thing, really. So I sold them the guitar and wrote them out a few chords...your basic three-chord progressions. I gave them the guitar for fifty cents...that's how hungry I was. I took off down the road to the nearest beanery. (Laughter from radio crew or studio audience.)
LES: What year was that?
CISCO: Oh, gosh, 1938 or '39, or maybe before that...
LES: That sounds so funny...but you couldn't do that today. Cisco, what do you think about the new interest in folk music today?
CISCO: Well, Les, I think there are really very simple reasons for it. I think we can attribute a lot of credit to The Weavers, and actually, though some people may not admit this, to The Kingston Trio. The Weavers being the first, of course, who got on to major communication outlets on radio and television with real folk music. Everybody doesn't do it like Uncle Dave Macon or something. Nevertheless, it was folk song, and it had a little more to say than some of the rest of the stuff out there. The public liked it. The Weavers went great guns there, and still are today. And there is tremendous turnout in the colleges for The Kingston Trio boys. Oddly enough, the biggest thing they ever did was the simplest one they ever did --"Tom Dooley." It was simply and honestly stated, the way they did that one. They are sort of clowns, and use folk music as the background for their act, but the more the public gets acquainted with folk music, the more it has to say to them.
Everybody hates to have two things said about them: One is that they have never known trouble, and the other is that they don't have a sense of humor. But folk music is so much about troubles, and being able to laugh at troubles. A lot of these college kids, they haven't experienced anything in their life like that, but they like to identify with that kind of thing. Young kids come to me all the time, asking about my days on the road. It's a very romantic thing to them. I try to dissuade them. To be just going out on the road like that, I tell them "Get a car!" We did it in those days by hitch-hiking and walking because we had to do it that way, not because we wanted to. The point is, they identify so strongly with that. They have all sorts of questions about Woody and I and our travels. They ask The Weavers questions about Woody, these kids who never met him -- they want to know more about him personally.
But it's just as simple as this: The songs themselves just have more to say to them. I mean, how long can you sing the old "Cinderella" story? "I loved you" and "I lost you" or whatever? Even rock and roll is nothing but old Negro blues, really, with a different beat.
LES: I have people ask me, when I play an old rhythm and blues thing on the show...and I have to tell them, "This is not rock and roll." Sometimes the listeners are inclined to think that it is. Somebody always asks me "What's the difference between rock and roll and rhythm and blues?" I find it is very difficult to explain.
CISCO: It IS difficult to explain. They (the rock and rollers) usually take and butcher the words and add in a lot of stuff to get all these nonsense sounds...but actually, it isn't different. Elvis Presley's first big number...or one of his first big ones...was "Heartbreak Hotel." Well, I knew this song as it was recorded by an old Negro singer, God years before Presley ever came on the scene. It was just called "The Hard Rockin' Motel." It was a real down-to-earth song: It went (Cisco sings) "The hard-rocking motel...and a cold (word unintelligible) in my bed...and the highway is my home...I might as well be dead...in the heartbreak hotel."
They just made "Heartbreak Hotel" out of it...a couple of guys who were writing this stuff (for Elvis) were not songwriters, in a sense...they were jumping into the barrel and taking all the Negro country blues they could find out of that hat...and in my opinion, making something worse out of it. The original song was a great song, as this guy sang it...but you gotta make a modern boy/girl "Heartbreak Hotel" out of it. Maybe that's true, for a lot of these kids. I don't say that that doesn't sell more records.
LES: "Look" Magazine had an article a few weeks ago, about the Kingston Trio, primarily...the whole issue was about youth, and the folk music movement, and how they are kind of turning away from rock and roll...that the kids listening to rock and roll were getting younger and younger each year. That more of the teenagers, say age 16, 17 and 18, were turning to folk material, away from rock and roll.
CISCO: Yeah, that seems to be true. It seems rock and roll is used mostly on kids 12 and 13 years old, who really want to express themselves physically, more than anything else, with dancing. They don't have to pay any attention to what the words say, because they don't say anything anyway. It's sort of interesting, for just dancing, moving around, and letting off a little steam.
LES: Cisco, you knew Leadbelly, I guess?
CISCO: Very well. I stayed with "Lead" for days on end.
LES: Tell us something about him. How did you guys get along? You never made any recordings with him, did you?
CISCO: Yeah, Woody and I made an album with him. It wasn't too good of an album. It was just for fun's sake. One day we were all up at Moe Asch's studio and we did quite a few songs together, I think the whole album. Leadbelly was quite a remarkable guy. I knew him quite well, probably better than most people, and you know, most people -- you got to meet Lead, and you read something about his background --he killed a couple of people, you know -- you just can't believe this is true. He's such a mild guy, of course it was self-defense, more likely. But I got to know him well, and heard him express a lot of his hostilities, and I thought, "This guy, he could do somebody in if he had to." But I think he was one of the greatest that we've had -- singers -- tremendous voice. He learned a lot from Blind Lemon Jefferson, as they all seemed to have done. He was probably the REAL "great." But Leadbelly had a way of speaking in poetry. And he had a lot of high hopes. Big dreams, you know, that never did materialize. It was only after he was dead that his songs made a lot of money.
LES: I know, the Weavers did his "Goodnight, Irene" -- it sold something like two million copies. I remember it was on "The Hit Parade" in 1950 or '51, I think. Well, Leadbelly wrote a lot of songs, didn't he?
CISCO: Yeah...quite a few.
LES: Can you tell us some experience you had, one of them, something during your travels with Woody? How come you got into this traveling up and down California, singing in the migrant camps?
CISCO: Actually, it was something Will Geer sort of financed. We were doing shows around Los Angeles for Spanish refugee relief, Lionel Stander, Will Geer, Burl Ives, myself and Woody. You know, to raise money for the Spanish civil war refugees about 1939, I guess. And we got together to make up a unit called "Will Geer's Pack Troupe" -- Will had a few bucks. Nobody else had any money. Woody had this old broken-down car. Woody taped just enough radio shows in advance so he could take off a few days to visit the government camps and organize a show there. We got no money for it, just enough to pay for gasoline and food. We just did it to be doing something.
We had a lot of fun on the merchant ships with Woody. He was...well, not "unorganized" but sort of anarchistic in his behavior, compared to how most people go. It was a riot. One time we got torpedoed, and here comes Woody, up on the lifeboat deck, with guitars and mandolins and fiddles hung all over his body. The mate is saying "You can't get into the boat with all that stuff, we won't have room for the men." But we didn't sink on that occasion, so it was alright.
LES: Cisco, where is Woody now?
CISCO: He's in Greystone State Hospital in New Jersey. He has, as most people know, Huntington's Chorea...which is one of the worst possible kinds. Nobody knows why it starts, but there is no way of stopping it. It is hereditary. It attacks the central nervous system. So he can't function, you know. His hands MOVE all the time. He's at the end of his creative life, for sure. It really breaks your heart to see the guy.
LES: Well, he wrote so many good songs. Something I like about your newest album is that it has a lot by Woody. "Pastures of Plenty" -- were you with him when he wrote that?
CISCO: I can't remember. Woody was so brilliant for such a long time. He wrote that one in the '40's sometime. I don't think I was with him then. He did all those sea songs like "Talkin' Sailor" and all those government songs like "Grand Coulee Dam." Wherever he went, and whatever he did, he just observed things, and thought it over, and turned out a ballad about it. He's left tons of stuff, Les, back in New York, in notebooks: songs, fragments, unfinished songs, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds.
LES: Boy, I hope somebody publishes them sometime...
CISCO: Probably will. There is just a mess of material. This guy was SO prolific.
LES: What about Pete Seeger? When did you last see Pete?
CISCO: Several weeks ago...over a month ago, in New York.
LES: Maybe you can fill us in with some of the details of a little trouble he's having right now? A lot of people here have been wondering about it.
CISCO: I think I can give you the story as it stands today. As you know, after all these years, his trial finally came up. And of course, the judge he got -- a lot of it depends on the judge you know -- is one of these real "tough" guys. He made a reputation for himself prosecuting...well, I forgot which trials...earlier...this was his payoff, the judgeship. Evidently, he's showing that he appreciated it. Pete was convicted. The judge gave him a year in jail...and the judge said "I will not entertain any motions for bail, not in this court." And the young attorney there, who is prosecuting Pete, this really threw him. He'd never heard of anything like this. He was pretty upset about it. In fact, he helped them get another judge...and they did get bail. So now it's just a question of taking it to a higher court. So it may go on a couple of years or so. That's about all I know of it up until now.
LES: That's what I was kind of wondering...Pete's out, and he's free?
CISCO: They had him in jail for five hours...and they handcuffed the guy... this marvelous singer, handcuffed.
LES: I can't imagine Pete Seeger in handcuffs...he's such a lovable guy. Cisco, what would be your advice to young artists?
CISCO: I've had a lot of kids ask me that, Les. First of all, I usually tell them "Well, you're going into this thing because obviously you like it and you have a respect for the music that you're attempting to play. If you DON'T have that, you might as well quit right in the beginning. You have to be honest with yourself. If you like the music, you'll be playing it and singing it the rest of your life, anyway. It's something you carry around in your head and don't get rid of. And that's fine, although you may not make a living at it. It's not that easy.
I hope it grows and becomes a bigger, bigger thing. There's more and more television stuff in New York on folk music than there ever has been before. I hope it becomes big enough to embrace many more people. There's a lot of good entertainers coming along. When I was in New York last, there was a young group called The Gramercy Singers. Four girls and a guy, a Negro Gospel singer. They worked at Gerde's Folk City with me. They were just terrific...they electrified the audience. I told them "You guys are gonna go straight to the top." The next I heard of them, they got booked on an Ed Sullivan TV show and got a booking at "The Hungry i" club. They've got it...they are something different, but there's a lot of good people around.
LES: Cisco, you've just heard Joan Baez, haven't you?
CISCO: Oh yeah, Joanie's great, with something so unusual and unique in her voice. It's just a beautiful, beautiful voice. It's a pleasure to listen to. She's going great guns, just a natural talent there that pushes you through. Joanie turns down more work than she takes, really. But young people have to be honest with themselves. They can't expect that just because they LIKE the songs, that they can make a living at it. They have to really evaluate their own talent, compared to other people. But if they really think they've got enough, well, you just plunge in and try. Take all the hard luck there is, and go around to the coffee shops and audition, you know.
If they are interested in a record company: Always make a good, solid demonstration tape of what you have, and write them a little letter. I know Manny at Vanguard Records will always listen to a tape somebody sends in. He won't grant you a personal interview, you know...because what he is selling is what you're gonna hear on the tape, anyway. So if they make a good tape, and send it to Elektra, Riverside, Vanguard, or any of the bigger ones, why they have to wait to see what happens. Whether they are a success at it or not, the fact that they have...
THE SURVIVING TAPE OF THE INTERVIEW ENDS AT THIS SPOT.