Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Liner notes from Cisco Houston sings the songs of Wood Guthrie

Vanguard (Recordings for the Connoisseur) VRS 9089

Notes by Cisco Houston:

Woody Guthrie has probably written one thousand songs. I'm sure even he couldn't tell you exactly how many; he was too busy writing them to be bothered stopping to count. While the exact figure is not important, we can accept the one thousand mark as more accurate than arbitrary. What is important, however, is the kind of songs he wrote. Mostly he wrote about people, and his songs are an articulation of their work, their troubles, their heartbreaks and happinesses. One of his great songs says,

"This Land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York Island.
From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me."

And Woody knows the people of this land. He has traveled through most every state of the union, working and singing with farmers, migratory workers, oilfield roughnecks, lumberjacks, coal miners, factory workers, cowhands, longshoremen, seamen and soldiers---and just about anybody else you can name. His songs tell their story. When you hear them, you really hear America singing.

There are dozens of large notebooks filled with hundreds of Woody's songs, all hand-written with pen, pencil, crayon or whatever he happened to have with him at the time. They were hand-written not because Woody couldn't type; he used the touch system with a speed any legal secretary would be proud of. But he wrote his songs wherever he happened to be, and wherever there was something to write about. Reading through these notebooks of songs and comments you find they are characterized by a positiveness and express a belief in "a better world a ‘comin'." Nowhere in Woody's work will you find the negative "I was born to lose" whimpering, so common to commercial hillbilly tunes. And whether he is writing about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, the hard life of a rambling worker, and the tragedy of war, or dealing affectionately with the world of children, his statement is always simple and direct and reveals a sensitive understanding of what is real and human. It is this simplicity that is the true beauty of his poetry, a poetry that has been quoted by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Norman Rosten and many others. Woody has never had any patience with the silly, meaningless Tin Pan Alley-type songs that have nothing important to say about people; the kind of songs that may be sung for a few weeks, vaguely remembered for a few months, and completely forgotten in a year. Perhaps in our modern, complicated and somewhat troubled times, these Tin Pan Alley songs act as a sort of safety valve for us. We can hear them and sing them without having to think about anything. It's like going into a movie house to spend several hours in heaven. But sooner or later you must come out and walk in the real world. And when you do, whether the sun is shining or the rain is raining you'll probably find yourself singing one of Woody's songs.

People all over our USA and in other parts of the world have been singing Woody's songs for years, and more and more are joining in with each day that passes. Some of the songs have become top sellers in the commercial market of radio and juke boxes, which stands to the credit of those who operate that machinery. Also, today more than ever before, recording artists are drawing on Woody's material. I recently toured India for the State Department, with Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Marilyn Child. We found that folk songs in general, and Woody's in particular, were enthusiastically received. The people were particularly fond of Woody's children's songs. On my way home I stopped in England and Scotland, and found that Woody's following has grown tremendously. Everywhere, in concert halls and coffee houses, people of all ages are singing his songs and wanting to know more about him.

But let me go back a few years. I first met Woody in Los Angeles, California in 1938, where he had a daily radio program. His theme song was the first one you will hear on this album, and has been included for that reason. I remember that Woody's mailbox at the station was always full. People wrote in asking for songs, telling him about their troubles, and even asking his advice. He was paid a dollar a day by the station, and to supplement his income he sold a little mimeographed book of songs and sayings for twenty-five cents. It was called "On a Slow Train Through California" and I'm convinced it was the biggest bargain of our times. We used to sing together on his program, and I would help him open the letters and count the quarters, which he always shared with anyone who needed a few---and I did. Those were hard days! With Will Geer, one of our finest actors, we traveled up and down California, putting on shows of skits and songs for the migratory workers. We made these trips in Woody's 1927 Chevrolet, whose four wheels all went in different directions. You had to turn the steering wheel several times around before you got any response from the front wheels, which on occasion came perilously close to being too late. During the years that followed Woody and I traveled and sang together throughout the country. We sang on street corners and in saloons all over the big Southlands. We were always trying to get enough money to get to the next town. But there were better times and better automobiles, and we performed in concert halls and colleges and radio stations everywhere. During World War II, we were Merchant Seamen together. I can remember Woody coming aboard ship looking like a walking pawn shop window, with guitars, mandolins and fiddles hanging all over him. We took the instruments everywhere we went, and we sang and played all over Africa, Sicily, and the United Kingdom. We got torpedoed a couple of times, and when the ship didn't sink too fast, we would get the whole crew to join in, singing the "Reuben James." We've had a lot of years and a lot of good and hard times together, and I only wish I had the space to tell you more about Woody Guthrie. He is quite a remarkable man.

Unfortunately, for the past few years, Woody Guthrie has been suffering from Huntington's Chorea, and is no longer able to continue his creative work. He faces this with the same great courage he has faced everything in his life, and it's been a life filled with more than his share of tragedy. During the more than 20 years I've known and loved Woody Guthrie, I've never known him to be afraid of anything.

Woody has written so many truly great songs that it was indeed difficult to select a given number for this album. But I believe we have some of his best included here, and perhaps there will be more later. This album is my personal tribute to him.

Special note: We were most fortunate in getting Eric Weisberg to accompany on banjo, mandolin and fiddle. His extraordinary talents contribute greatly to this record.

ABOUT CISCO HOUSTON (From Vanguard's LP "Cisco Houston Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie" first issued in 1961, reissued in 1963).

While Cisco Houston, one of the most modest and plain-speaking of people, would rather talk about anybody but himself, his notes above in tribute to Woody Guthrie cannot help but reveal what kind of person he is. Some footnotes to the above are provided by Lee Hays:

"He was Gilbert Houston until he stopped off for a spell of work in a small California town called Cisco; when he left, he borrowed the name and has never returned it. When I first saw him, he was a barker for a 42nd Street burlesque house in New York City. I saw him on network television shows and in a Broadway play. Another time, he was Martha Graham's balladeer in a dance tour. In logging camps he swung a double-bit axe and learned which end of a six-foot crosscut saw to pull. He has had parts in films, and has done singing commercials for a beer company. We worked in a desert potash plant where the heat hit 118 degrees, and in a pickle factory. Once, he went down to Denver to look for a job and wound up with his own daily radio show on the network, and a fan club.

"He can walk into your home and, right away, start a good talk with the kids. He knows where your refrigerator is, and your record player, and he has already read most of your books. After he has been with you a short time, you begin to feel more at home yourself. As you listen to this record, I think you will get the feeling that Cisco Houston is visiting with you in your home, singing for you and with you, about as he would do it if he had walked in, in person."

Special note: One of Cisco's more recent appearances was at the Newport, Rhode Island Folk Music Festival of 1960, where a big audience greeted him with attention and affection.

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