Of Mice and Men
Music by Cisco Houston
Woody Guthrie powerfully hooked himself to novelist John Steinbeck by composing "The Ballad of Tom Joad," a condensed version of "The Grapes of Wrath". In 1976, I was assigned to direct the stage version of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" for Hobbs [New Mexico] Community Theater, and wanted music to reflect the themes of the play. Cisco's performances of Depression-era songs, farm and ranch ballads, traditional cowboy tunes, and lonesome migrant blues pieces were a perfect fit. "Of Mice and Men" is the story of Lennie and George, pals and migrant ranch hands with dreams of making enough dough to buy their own small place someday. Lennie suffers from what today might be termed "developmental delay." He is large and strong, but of childish mind and understanding. George, today, might be called a saintly caretaker and guardian, or a codependent enabler for Lennie, depending on one's bias. The play's action involves the pair getting jobs harvesting wheat in California, coping with the boss, his unhappy and flirtatious daughter-in-law, and her bullying husband. The other ranch hands sometimes admire George and Lennie, and sometimes are disdainful. The play ends with an unintended death, and then an intended one. I find it an admirable work that moves me deeply, but the book and dramatization have always been controversial, and "Of Mice and Men" finds itself banned from one high school or another just about every year. The characters are mired in fairly hard times, although not in the deep crisis faced by the Joads in "Grapes of Wrath."
For my production, I wanted folk music to be prominent before the curtain opened, between major changes of scene, and to set the mood before the subsequent acts. I had a better Cisco LP collection at the time than I had of Woody, but I also felt that Cisco's smoother vocals would sit better with the audience. Woody's best recorded performances all were made in the 1940's, but I owned Cisco's final LP on Vanguard, recorded less than a year before his death in 1961. The difference in sound quality between the available Guthrie records and the latest Houston vinyl was another factor in choosing Cisco over Woody to enhance my production.
I used four songs from that LP, (which is not available on CD, to the shame of the Vanguard folks) but can be found in its original format under the title "I Ain't Got No Home" or the reissue title "The Legendary Cisco Houston: I Ain't Got No Home." Before the opening curtain, the audience heard Cisco singing "I Ain't Got No Home", (written by Woody) and then got introduced to Lennie and George, camping on a river bank the night before going to work for the wheat rancher. Later in the play, I used parts of "Waggoner's Lad" to enhance the mood while the audience saw the workers go about their duties in bunkhouse and stable. Before a scene in which George, Lennie and others go to town to squander some of their pay, I used parts of "Ramblin' Round." During the scene in which Curley's wife packs and goes to the barn prior to running off from her abusive husband, my audience heard Cisco sing "Trouble in Mind." From another Cisco LP I used "Old Blue" because one of the important minor themes in the play shows the love of disabled ranch hand Candy for his broken-down sheepdog, who meets a bad and unfair end, which foreshadows the terrible fate awaiting Lennie Small.
Though "Of Mice and Men" is a sad tale that literally ends with a bang, our local audiences appreciated the production. Several people mentioned that Cisco's songs were an unusual but nice addition, and complimented his singing. I recommend that anyone out there contemplating a production of this play, or the stage version of "Grapes of Wrath", listen to Cisco sing lyrics that fit those people and that place and time. Even if the recordings are not used as I did, they will help any director, actor, or backstage worker understand the characters in a deeper way.