Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

A Cisco Fan from Germany

Gabriele Haefs

Folkmagazin Seite 10

The following is a translation (by the author) of an article that appeared in the German magazine Folkmagazin celebrating Cisco's 100th birthday. The article is not available online in the original German.

Cisco Houston would have been 100 this August 18th, which is reason enough to remember this wonderful singer. Also, because his fame has started to increase again in the past years. Many CDs have been issued, and at long last he is recognized as a fine song-writer. Gilbert Vandine Houston (his complete name) died already in 1961, with not even 43 years, of cancer, and he did not perform much in the time before his death: Nystagmus, an eye-sickdom which he had been suffering from already as a school kid was causing more and more problems, and tall, handsome Clark-Gable-type Cisco did not want to seen wearing glasses. Right then the first contact lenses were made available, but then cancer took its toll.

Before his eye-problems really became a serious hindrance he had indeed tried his luck in Hollywood, but sadly he never got anything else but minor roles in cowboy-films. My great humming-part" as he describes these roles to Scottish singer Josh Macrae who counted Cisco among his idols. The typical scene: Cisco is lying under a tree, than the baddy come riding, ask: "Which way to go" and Cisco, well knowing that he's got to do with the villain of the piece, answers "Hmmmmm." End of scene. No wonder he preferred singing after all. He had also tried his hand as a travelling salesman, an cowboy and a sailor, but singing was his biggest and first passion. The first songs he performed publicly when still at school he had learned from his parents. When the Great Depression hit the country highly gifted Gil (as he was called at that time) left school, looked for work everywhere in the States and played music. In the town of Cisco in California he found the name which was to accompany him until the rest of his lifer (and further). Of course he found new songs all along the road, sometimes only fragments of songs which he then put together -- he never cared much for copyrights, but said that the song was the only thing that counts, but if you go into an archive and start looking around you'll soon discover that many versions of songs which we today think are the original ones were Cisco's reconstructions.

He also wrote songs which today are counted as traditionals (like "Bad Man's Blunder", "Ramblin Gamblin Man" and "What Did the Deep Sea Say"). But he did not find this imporatant kept saying that his own song-writing talents were nothing compared to those of his pal Woody Guthrie -- who in Bound for Glory describes his first meeting with Cisco full of fondness and devotion. When we read with whom - with or without Woody Guthrie -- Cisco performed we can only gasp for air: Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, to mention but a few. But he also met with criticism: His voice was said to be too beautiful for folk-singing! And of course he might have stormed the charts with his resounding baritone, but this was something he did not want, and he was immune to this type of criticism: "Even in the Ozarks people always want to hear the best singer. Just because a man is old, has three fingers twisted by rheumatism und only two strings left on his banjo does not make him a musical genius!"

It is very difficult to find out more about Cisco Houstons's private life. Woody Guthrie's biographer Joe Klein writes that Cisco, shortly before his death, handed his uncompleted autobiography to his girlfriend Bina Tannenbaum, but no one seems to know what happened to it.

On a website in the USA I recently found the question if Cisco was bi, gay or straight, you could vote and 50% said bi and 50% voted for hetero. Where the voters got their knowledge? Haven't a clue. Surely Cisco would have laughed and written a funny song about it.

There are no videos of his concerts, just a few radio-recordings of lousy qualitiy, but we have the CDs, which are more than a big comfort and something to remember this wonderful musician by.

There is also a website compiled by fans trying to build up a Cisco-archive:

Author's Note:

Me and Cisco go a long way back ... my brother had a school pal who was over in Germany because his father was doing something or other at the US embassay, so the son went to school in Bonn for some years (where we lived), and the school pal had records of singers we had never heard of, like Cisco, Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and made us listen to them all and we were totally captivated. Don't know how Dave (that was his name) got into this, it's many years ago, you see.
So anyway, the first song I heard of the lot was Cisco singing "East Virginia" and thought it was about the greatest thing I ever heard - see, I was 13 then, the boys, three years older, said "too sweet", so I kept my opinion for myself, but saved until I could buy my own Cisco-LP which had this song on it - those were the days where you had to save for a while to be able to buy an LP, you know, and had to order them in the shop since they never had music in store which was not played on the radio every day. So from my own experience Cisco was definitely a singer for women - and I do have some female friends who love his music as well.

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