It's the song, not the singer, that counts
March 19, 1960
Folk singer Cisco Houston -- he once worked in the Merchant Marine with Woody Guthrie -- is an unspectacular, almost grave-looking performer who believes in letting the song tell its own story. At the Conway Hall last Friday, Houston sang for the first time at a public concert in Britain, though he was here during the war, and with Guthrie.
He made a very agreeable impression with his mixture of humorous songs, railroad blues, mining ballads and Guthrie songs like "Freedom Highway" all sung to his own guitar accompaniment.
All over USA
Afterwards, I met Houston and asked him about folk music and his own career.
"For my own part," he said, "I sing as honestly as I can, trying to do a good performing job while treating the song with respect. I think the song itself is the important thing -- not how cute the performer may be. I grew up with folk songs passed on from my mother's family and my father's. I moved to California when I was two, and since then I've wandered all over the USA about 30 times and done about every job I had to do.
With Woody"I was singing at school, but it was through Woody Guthrie that I really got started. I met up with him in Los Angeles about 1939, and encouraged him to go to New York, where he was a pretty big hit. One time we toured the migratory camps -- Woody and I, and sometimes Burl Ives and others, doing shows for the fruit pickers. Woody and I became sort of a team then, singing throughout the South and West, and sailing together in the Merchant Marine in 1942.
"Since then I've worked in café society, done TV shows, had my own programme on the Mutual Network, and traveled a lot besides. Just now I've come from three months in India, from North to South, with Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and Marilyn Childs. There we found confirmation of the belief that folk songs are an international language. They liked us very much, and we 'got over' even in places where less than ten percent understood any English at all. Brownie and Sunny were terrifically received, and they loved Sonny's harmonica."
Who are the greatest American folk singers Cisco ever heard?
"I think Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly" he says. "I think the quality came not from what either one was trying to be, but from what each one naturally was -- a product of a certain time and place. Leadbelly would sing all day in that miserable fifth-floor walk-up on New York's lower East side, where he lived in the 'forties. And he sang about what happened to him. Woody, too, had a genius for telling a story that was true, and maybe speculating a bit on what might happen. It was never a case of 'Look how cute I am' or 'How cute my guitar sounds!'" -- M.J.
From the British music magazine, when Cisco stopped in England en route home from his cultural tour of India. To see an image of the whole article, click Here