Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Legendary (With Alan Lomax)

Notes by Greg Gormick, Toronto, Ontario, August, 1996

Though this CD is a fraud, the notes are mildly worth reading. Therefore we post them here. And encourage you to save your dough and buy any other CD.

For some in the folk music world which has evolved since the 1960's, the names Alan Lomax and Cisco Houston don't even elicit a glimmer of recognition. Pity. Because the growth and acceptance of folk as a legitimate form of American musical expression owes a great debt to both of them.

Gilbert "Cisco" Houston was regarded by his own crowd of folk pioneers as one of America's greatest balladeers, and a warm and compassionate human being who seems to have never had a single negative word uttered against him. Writing the liner notes for a Folkways collection of his work, the obstinate and often irritable folk great, Woody Guthrie, commented, "In my own mind, I see Cisco Houston as one of our manliest and best of our living crop of ballad and folksong singers. He is showman enough to make the grade and to hold any audience anywhere and at any time. I like Cisco as a man. I like Cisco as a person and as a fun-loving, warm-hearted and likeable human being."

High praise, indeed, from Guthrie, who was not always forthcoming with positive assessments of his fellow folk artists.

Houston was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 18, 1918, to a family with roots in Virginia and the Carolinas. He grew up with his grandmother singing the songs of Appalachia, and he loved them. He spent his school years in Los Angeles and developed his facility with the guitar while growing up there.

Entering the workforce during the Depression, he was forced to take whatever work came along. Wandering with his guitar and his love of American folk music, he supported himself throughout the U.S. Southwest in jobs which only added to his musical knowledge. It was while employed as a wrangler on a Colorado ranch that he first heard and developed a love of traditional cowboy songs.

As he augmented his musical career with these important but non-artistic jobs, he met the artists who would be his contemporaries in the folk field. Among them were Woody Guthrie, Kentucky folksinger and writer John Jacob Niles, Leadbelly and Alan Lomax.

That Houston and Lomax would meet and work together was inevitable. That Lomax would be an important force in the preservation and popularization of America's folk roots was equally inevitable. Born in Austin, Texas, on January 15, 1915, he grew up under the dynamic influence of his father, John, who was perhaps the first person to recognize the value of folk music, and who passionately set out before the First World War to collect it, catalogue it and promote it. It was at the age of 18 that Alan went on his first collecting trip with his father, watching and helping him as he wrote and recorded the music he encountered in various rural locales.

At that time, Lomax senior began his monumental work of collecting folk material for the Library of Congress. The younger Lomax enrolled at Harvard, where his father had previously been influenced and encouraged by the legendary folklorist George Lyman Kittredge, a man who philosophically and intellectually branded many young Americans who would have a lasting effect on their country's arts, sciences, and politics. The young Lomax was not enamoured of Harvard, though, and went back to the University of Texas, from which he graduated in 1937. He then became assistant curator of his father's folk project at the Library of Congress.

In 1942, Lomax left to produce and record folk music for many record companies and the transcontinental broadcasting systems. His eclectic tastes and knowledge led him to work with Leadbelly, Vera Hall, Horton Barker and Jelly Roll Morton. He promoted folk music relentlessly in his positions with the U.S. military's information and education divisions during the Second World War. He later became a producer and director for Decca Records. He hosted various radio shows of folk music, and he continued to collect and promote music of all sorts in his recording, writing and concert production capacities.

Lomax also occasionally recorded himself. These recordings with his friend Cisco Houston are from that all-too-small pool of tracks. The selection of songs which they recorded will, for the developing folk afficianado, bring forth the predictable comment "I know that tune but I never knew what it was." All have been etched into our musical consciousness over the years, and, although we may not have ever been aware of it, some of that etching is due to the work of these two folk pioneers.

What greater tribute could be paid to both Lomax and Houston than to say that a disc such as this may help transform that public subconscious knowledge of their work into a conscious familiarity?

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