Your Webmaster Meets Cisco Houston
My childhood was full of the sounds of Folk Music. While Rock and Roll was sweeping the rest of nation, the broom missed our house completely. So much so that when I started (involuntarily) to take guitar lessons in 1963, my teacher, certain that I too was eager to become part of the rock explosion, was baffled at my near complete ignorance of all things related to contemporary music. Though only 8, I must have been one of the few kids outside Appalachia that had not heard of The Beatles. But I hadn't. I just didn't know... I guess we played outside too much to listen to the radio, and were under marketers' radar back in those halcyon days of childhood ignorance.
What was on that blue hi-fi was Pete Seeger, Odetta, Ian and Sylvia, The Clancy Brothers, and Cisco Houston. By 1969, I was ready for headier stuff, and found my own music; though I was a late convert to rock, I was a fierce one, and bought LPs by the score for years. Many years later, when my own children were young, and my musical tastes had largely left rock behind, my mother made a tape of many of the fun songs of that long-ago childhood. Sam Hinton singing The Arkansas Traveller ("No sense your taking this road to Ft. Smith, they already got one there"), Odetta and Harry discussing the hole in the bucket, Miriam Makeba making those strange clicking sounds that were words in her amazing language, and Cisco Houston discussing learning the guitar and disposing of cats in the hopper when the butcher wasn't 'round. I didn't realize how much this music meant to me until then, and I found myself entranced with the loveliness and beauty of it. It was not just nostalgia. These were good performances of good stuff.
The more I listened, the more I recognized that Cisco's singing was something I had not often experienced elsewhere. His was an authentic voice that was not "performing" in some doctored, managed, souped-up way, but was acting almost as a medium, carrying the songs of the American people in him and letting them out with authority and accuracy and power. He sounded as real as they come, but also good enough to be listened to. And he sounded like a nice man.
The arrival of that tape was followed a couple years later by the arrival of a CD player in our house (another bandwagon I was late to jump on), and I started buying music again. I acquired several of the old ones newly released on CD; among them I bought Cisco. Singing Woody Guthrie, The Folkways Years, and finally Best of The Vanguard Years. And delved into an American voice that I cannot ever imagine being duplicated. This man could sing, and did it when the proper political attitude or color were often of greater importance. One just wishes he had done so much more.... he probably knew hundreds of songs that are part of our country that will never be uncovered again. E-Bay allowed me to listen to the sources, as the old LPs from my parents were either gone or ground into ruts. And that arrival of the actual LPs unlocked more treasures -- none of the three CDs contains anything near his best material.
The LPs that made such an impression on me were not any of the Cisco LPs available at that time, but his performances from two anthologies: Classics of Folk Music: Folk Song & Minstrelsy and The Folk Box. Each contained 4 LPs of music that made a powerful impression on me. The Classics set had many glorious Cisco performances, The Folk Box, just one.
I have since listened with joy to all of Cisco's work, going back to the beginning on 78 and listening to the CDs created long after his untilely death. Fare Thee Well, Cisco, you've left some great music behind!