Cisco Houston: The Cisco Special!
I Ain't Got No Home
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Years go by and you finally, sometimes, get around to things. Pictures you remember seeing in sixth grade are just as sharp in your 40-year-old mind as they were on the page of a book back when. Things circle around, not obsessions but memories, things you never let go of or that never let go of you.
I saw a picture of Cisco Houston in a book a long time ago, a book on folk music for young readers. Somewhere between the unnerving studio portrait of Leadbelly glaring over his huge 12-string and the promo shot of Bob Dylan scowling while modeling a Fender bass (!?) was the shot of Cisco at some foggy outdoor folk festival. Pencil mustache and windbreaker, cigarette, very good-looking. Errol Flynn type, a pirate, or an adventurer like Frank Buck. Or a hero of the Hollywood musical like Howard Keel or Gordon McRae. He didn't look like a folk singer, or like he'd ever been sidekick to Woody Guthrie (evidently his main fame): Cisco Houston looked like he'd have the sidekick.
He'd died fairly young, the book said, of cancer in 1961.
I didn't see his name very often over the years and when I did, he was written of with respect and without enthusiasm. The rock generation loved Guthrie and revered Leadbelly but Houston was a footnote. He hadn't written his own music but had glommed onto Woody's. He wasn't rough-hewn or mentally unstable or a Depression icon, hadn't killed anyone or been in prison or made a microphone feed back. He was known as Guthrie's bumming buddy and popular interpreter: he seemed without any other identity. A minor figure. But Cisco Houston stayed in my mind, the way mysterious, good-looking, prematurely dead people often stay in your mind.
So I read a website and hunted up some old albums and burned a homemade compilation from scavenged tracks and figured I'd finally set this Houston thing to rest. Or wake it up, either one. The site, Cisco Houston's Home, is rich with photos and quotes and has a brief but informative biography by Mark Eastman. It filled me in on where Houston had come from, where he'd gone, who he'd been with, and what he'd done. He'd gone, been with, and done plenty. He'd hit the road early and stayed on it. He was a logger, farm worker, hitchhiker, merchant marine, saloon singer, actor on stage, radio and TV. He'd bummed all over the country and sailed to distant lands.
Much of this he'd done by the age of 25. At 25 I was debating whether to come out of the basement.
The music? Agile, tune-oriented, self-confident, imperturbable, above all smooth. At worst it's plain dull, the New Deal equivalent of slick-ass L.A. country rock circa 1974, with just that depth of passion. But Cisco Houston had experience behind him, tolerable taste in material (solid standards, very little novelty effluvia), and the sense to opt mostly for bare accompaniment, little beyond acoustic guitar and bass -- a few songs have distant flute, harmonica, or minimal vocal-group backing and that's it. Spareness of setting often has the effect in Houston of alienating and chilling vocal deliveries that would otherwise be Hollywood hokum.
Passing Through is my homemade CD, hits and misses drawn from here and there in the first flush of hearing this deep voice sing logging songs and union songs and rambling songs from what seems long, long ago. Of the two other titles, both recorded for Vanguard during Houston's folk-revival rediscovery, The Cisco Special! (1959) is less impressive, but there are surprises and subtleties hidden in its shallow dales.
Houston recorded the songs on I Ain't Got No Home (including the sorrowful title song, Guthrie's chilling "East Texas Red," and a version of Leadbelly's "In the Pines") only weeks before his death. He knew it was his last go-round and though objectively that shouldn't matter to us -- the music is good or it isn't -- it's undeniable that impending mortality cast shadows over his customary cheer, gave a somewhat more husked-out quality to his old straight tones. Plus he's singing mostly songs about death: murder, suicide, fantasies of eternal release. But all sung pure, true, concert-hall proper. So it's not quite a trip through death's dark night, but every artist's personality has its underside and Houston's was a forward-staring stoicism that can conjure pictures of Gary Cooper suffering and striding towards high noon: Gary Cooper who died, also from cancer, a mere two weeks after Cisco Houston.
"If you know my situation, which is a matter of weeks, of months at the outside, before the wheel runs off . . . well, nobody likes to run out of time. But it's not nearly the tragedy of Hiroshima or the millions of people blown to hell in the war, that could have been avoided. These are real tragedies ..."
-- Cisco Houston, quoted in Sing Out!, November-December 1961
Listeners, especially those with an aversion to square-shaped pre-Beatle musicalities, have always been and likely always will be put off by Houston's voice: clear, clean, slick, professional. He is pleased with his hobo mimicry, his theatrical enunciation. He sings bad-ass lyrics in the gentlest baritone Broadway never stole. When he sings I was feelin' kinda mean, I shot a deppity down, there is no leaping the ironic distance between text and expression. To the rock- or even pop-oriented ear, it croons false feeling.
But Cisco had his talent and if you're patient, talent like a nocturnal animal always emerges. Listen to that voice long enough and the warmth has a way of rising. The professionalisms come to seem a way not of faking feeling but of faking out the listener, so that sadness and wonderment are the echo of what you'd thought was just an easy, simple time. That might not mean a thrill-ride for the modern pop fan. But any person who thinks thrills are the whole of life is a good 15 to 30 years younger than me and has some surprises ahead.
Halfway into Side 1 of Special!, "Old Smoky" (as in "On Top Of") may elicit, at first, the smallest of inward groans. The voice is just too manly and forthright, the song too familiar. The feeling is fulsome. It's all surface. But the groan dissipates as the song continues. Listen into it. Cisco warms the lyric, warms your ear, and it doesn't even take that long. What started slick turns sad. What felt fake now seems merely a particularly formal mode of human expression. It's a certain man talking a certain way. And suddenly he's reached the last line. You don't want it to be the last line, you want a bit more. You don't get more, so you want to track back, isolate the effect or moment when something changed, discover how Houston got you to the point of caring and wondering. How like a master illusionist he dissolved the wooden center of a perfectly staged, immaculately platformed performance, so that the song's mystery vibrates subtly and briefly down a hollow you never saw coming. And you'll never know why, says that last line, an enticement, a promise, an eternal farewell.
Devin: One of the advantages of an uncommon name is that you might eventually stumble across this page if searching for your moniker on the web. I looked all over to find some way of contacting you, but was unsuccessful. A link to your blog will someday fail, and I want to keep this delightful essay. I hope you have no objection to our posting this here. And if you write any more about Cisco, please let us know!