Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Singing On The Ships

Cisco Houston

All the guys we used to ride on the ships with in WW II used to do some of the best singing I ever heard in my life. On one ship, the Sea Porpoise, there were a lot of Negro soldiers. We used to go down in the latrine. The acoustics there were wonderful, and the singing filled the whole thing. It rang out. And the guys, from all parts of the country, had wonderful stories. We heard how hard it was for Negroes to get out of the south at that time, to have a chance at good war and defense jobs in Chicago and other places. They (the whites) used to cut the avenues of escape. Bus lines would not sell Negroes tickets (to points North) just to keep them down there doing work for 25 cents an hour. These guys used to get together and sing. They had never sung together before, for they had just met on the troop ship. They were terrific. They had anything beat I had ever heard anywhere. They did not sing loud, just good. They chanted. All this stuff in them came out, and they worked together as if they had been doing it all their lives, singing. It was beautiful. Among the soldiers and sailors and merchant marine and gun crew, the thing that brought them together was the singing.

At the beginning of the trip, the gun crew boys were told to keep away from the merchant marine. "Don't go to union meetings. Have nothing to do with the National Maritime Union (NMU.)" The young officer who was in charge of those guys actually came down and said he did not want the gun crew and the merchant marine together, even in the mess rooms. Well, we broke that up mighty quick, by singing. The gun crew boys were kids, from all parts of the country. Singing was so much a part of their whole lives. It was ingrained in them, and a little lieutenant couldn't keep them away from it.

We had all sorts of guitars and mandolins. We used to look like a walking pawnshop when we went aboard. We hauled out our instruments and got in that mess room and sang for three hours straight -- Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Longhi and myself, with everyone else joining in. It was wonderful. We also did this down in the hold for the troops. They were starved for this kind of real singing. Everywhere they went on land, they had some corny guy from Broadway to handle the program. The soldiers didn't want to hear the kind of crap they were being offered.

But those gun crew boys: After three nights of singing with them, even that lieutenant came down one night. After awhile, he said to us "Men, I'm really sorry. I never saw a bunch of guys have such a good time in all my life. I really feel bad about the way I've acted. This is really the best thing I've ever heard. You guys go right ahead."

Even when the ship got hit by torpedo or a mine, the guys were out on the decks singing "You Fascists Are Bound to Lose" and the singing was the thing that held them together. A lot of them were banged up, some with teeth knocked out by the explosion. The phony officers were up on the deck, drinking up the ship's medicinal whiskey, getting drunk to calm their nerves because they didn't know how to sing.

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 which came out of the Almanac Singers was something they went wild about. If we'd had any "People's Songs Bulletins" on that ship, we'd have got rid of 3,000 copies -- that's how many men we had on board. These guys were landing on a beachhead. They knew that in a few hours, a lot of them would not be alive. Singing was the only thing that they could grab hold of.

See a review of James Longhi's book, Woody, Cisco, and Me Here.

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