Too Good A Singer?
For many years I have been describing the woodworking I do as "Folk Carpentry." Taking my cue from "Folk Art," which is apparently whatever anyone wants to call stuff not done by trained artists, yet still give it value and worth, I am a Folk Carpenter. The literal translation would be mediocre carpenter, but I prefer the dignity and elegance, and in some cases, museum quality, of Folk. You know, one of the people, a regular guy, doing the kinds of things craftsmen have been doing for centuries (even if they have been doing them better than I.) Now my work will never be in a museum; heck, I try to keep most of it out of sight. See Note
The other day, a friend called and asked if I wanted to serenade his wife with a phone version of Happy Birthday. I was about to reply, using the same logic as above, "No, I'm a Folk Singer." (Note the capital letters.) But as the words were about to drop from my mouth, I stopped. A folk singer! What did that mean? Certainly not the connotations I was about to ascribe.
So I started thinking about folk singing in conjunction with vocalists I know and either love or revile. Though I have had semi-limited exposure to Pete Seeger, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry and Uncle Dave Macon, I think few people would describe them as great vocalists. Woody Guthrie's larger-than-life personality and frantic intensity make many of his singing performances charming or entertaining, but he too is neither a great singer, nor a great picker. Yet somehow these men have all become legends of Folk Music.
(Interestingly, this same leniency does not seem to be extended to female vocalists, where vocal chops, demonstrated by Judy Collins, Odetta, Sylvia Fricker, Joan Baez, June Carter, etc. etc. seem obligatory.)
From Amazon.com, the editorial review of Cisco Houston: Best of the Vanguard Years.
If the track listing for this compilation suggests that Cisco Houston was a one-man Woody Guthrie cover band, that's because, quite simply, he was. Houston met Guthrie in California in 1938, and the two former hoboes crossed paths time and time again, frequently recording and performing together, up until Guthrie's diagnosis with Huntington's Chorea. As an interpreter, Houston's pure and easy baritone sometimes lent affecting charm to Guthrie's songs (as on the playful version of "Hard Traveling"), sometimes an eerie solemnity (as on his operatic, Gene Autry-esque interpretation of "Nine Hundred Miles"). Still, there's no escaping that Houston's refined singing shared more with Broadway musicals than with the cowboys, drifters, and workers of which he sang. His gentile, noble approach hasn't aged well, even if his voice did much to popularize these folk songs in the '50s and '60s. His music, however, while only intermittently successful, remains indispensable to understanding the folk revival as a whole.
Let's take that conclusion:
Still, there's no escaping that Houston's refined singing shared more with Broadway musicals than with the cowboys, drifters, and workers of which he sang. His gentile, noble approach hasn't aged well, even if his voice did much to popularize these folk songs in the '50s and '60s. His music, however, while only intermittently successful, remains indispensable to understanding the folk revival as a whole.
Cisco's "refined singing" is held against him, as if a "refined" singer could not be a working man. Cisco certainly spent his share of time Hard Travelin. But his voice, and his voice alone, disqualifies him as a singer of cowboy songs or Depression lyrics? What kind of logic is that? Is Odetta disqualified too? Or only Cisco?
"The gentile noble approach hasn't aged well?" In what sense? Sounds a bit snobby to me, like other "not pure enough" discussions we hear. It pleases me today, as it did when I was a kid back in the 60s. What has changed about our musical tastes so that it hasn't aged well, at least according to Mr. Kasten? I say nothing. Ironically, on today's stage, multi-millionaire geriatrics can prance and proclaim teenage anger, and few complain. Or lush studio musicians can transform simple hobo songs into virtual symphonies to great acclaim. Why single out poor Cisco? Good singing was good then and still is now. Musical idioms change, and the changes are sometimes hard to grasp. We listen to performances of major stars of the past, and find them mystifying. "People actually liked this?" we say, as we scratch our heads. "Really?" But don't we do that today as well? I believe myself to be way more broadminded than the normal listener, yet there are still genres I run from and performers, popular performers, who leave me as baffled as I could be.
Sorry, Mr. Kasten. We disagree. Cisco earned the right to sing these songs. He had a thousand jobs, hitched cross country, rode the rails, picked fruit and served in the Merchant Marine. Little more than Dylan ever did. Cisco is not essential to understanding some larger historical moment, a relic to be looked at as if resting on a museum shelf. He is pleasant and sincere and charming. A fine singer, a more-than-competent picker, and a valuable interpreter, and if his 900 Miles is indeed operatic, that is hardly a bad thing. The song is a mournful one, and Cisco singing it mourns as he does so. He's been there, he knows, and it's hard to imagine the hungry and chilly fellow-travelers in his boxcar saying "Hey there young fella, quit that singin', it's just too durn good."
Note: In a vein similar to Folk Carpentry, I want to document the word "arboriginal" here, courtesy of John "John's The Man®" Ross. (October 17, 2008)
Arboriginal, adj. (pertaining to trees and shrubbery): Having a rough and amateurish trim quality that reminds one of the poorest ancient rock carving or cave painting. [Blend of Arbor and Aboriginal]