I Ain't Got No Home
Notes by Harold Leventhal
"Whether I Come Into My Own
today, or in ten thousand years,
I can cheerfully take it now,
with equal cheerfulness I can wait."
The above lines from Walt Whitman were one of Cisco Houston's favorite passages of poetry. And as this is written, thirteen months after his untimely death from cancer in April, 1961, one can state with assurance and truth that Cisco Houston has indeed come into his own. For as the tide of interest rises in American folk music, sloughing off the commercialism still clinging to it and prizing the authentic voices, Cisco's name rises in stature. He was one of those authentic voices, the expression of a time and period, the late 30's and 40's, when so much took place in the economic and social struggles of our country that left its permanent mark on the face of America. These dramatic events also transformed the consciousness of the folk music heritage, restored its vitality and meaning, and added riches to its stock. And Cisco was in the midst of them. Whether he rode the rails with his pal Woody Guthrie, or found work in the sweltering copper mines of the West, or sailed the hazardous sea routes of the Merchant Marine during the war, whatever job he held, or whatever part of America or the world he traveled to, he merged his songs and his experiences and made them one. And he remained the same lovable, gifted and unpretentious human being whether a song came to his mind while taking a breather from work, or whether he was a disk jockey and singer on the Mutual Radio Network out of Denver.
These notes are not meant to be even the outline of a biography. They are only an attempt to put down in words why I, along with so many others who loved and respected Cisco, have erected a special pedestal for him in my mind, as a friend and co-worker, and place on it the epitaph of a "great guy."
In the summer of 1959 I met Cisco in Los Angeles and persuaded him to come East and resume his career as a "folksinger." Cisco had come to love the entertainment and theatrical world, but in the course of the years following World War II he had suffered many disappointments and encountered many problems. These made it so difficult for him to work professionally that he had practically abandoned this field. For some years prior to 1959 he performed sporadically, taking scattered jobs in "coffee-houses" and then dropping music to work in a factory or as a salesman. But with the growing interest in folk music, there was a new place for him.
In early October, 1959 I was able to phone Cisco that I had hooked him to head the first American group of folksingers to undertake a tour for the State Department and ANTA He was overjoyed at this news and promptly came East. In December this group. comprising Cisco. Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Marilyn Child, flew to India to begin an Asian tour. This tour was a triumph and marked the rebirth of Cisco's career at the age of forty. In March, on the way back from India he stopped off to tour the British Isles, giving concerts and performing on television.
Back in New York, Cisco shared an apartment with a friend on the lower East Side and began to make further use of his manysided talents. He took bookings at clubs, participated in concerts, and soon possibilities for this sort of work mounted. But He had abilities also as a song writer. He joined up with Lee Hays, an old friend who helped immensely to make Cisco's last months in New York especially fruitful and enjoyable. Lee and Cisco began to write songs, and their first venture, "Bad Man's Blunder," recorded by the Kingston Trio, became a hit song. And it helped, of course, for money to be corning in, with some promise of a comfortable living. In June of that year he was the MC and had a major singing role in the CBS TV spectacular, "Folk Sound U.S.A." Requests began to come from all over the country for bookings, concerts and folk festival appearances.
Then in July, 1960, the blow fell. Cisco went to the hospital for an "exploratory" operation and discovered that he had cancer. He recuperated for several weeks after the operation, and then in the autumn went back to his concert and club engagements. In January, 1961, the symptoms of cancer recurred. He could not continue working, and he phoned me from Detroit to request that I cancel all his future engagements. Some weeks later he came into the office, after a visit to his doctor. "Well, I've got news for you," Cisco calmly announced. "You're gonna lose a good client. The doctor said I have three to six months to live." It is difficult to describe the manner in which Cisco spent these last months in New York and then the final weeks in California, displaying so rare an indomitable spirit and philosophical attitude. At Lee Hays' apartment in Brooklyn he spent many hours and full days before a tape recorder, recounting in conversations with Lee his life, his experiences, his attitudes -– indeed, his autobiography set on tape. It is hoped that the material on these tapes, now being edited by Lee Hays, will he published in book form.
In early March, showing continued signs of weakness, Cisco left for California to be with his family. On April 28, at his sister's home in San Bernadino, Cisco Houston died, aged forty-two.
Lee Hays, in a recent article about his friend, wrote, "Cisco touched people. People who knew him only for an hour grieve and are strangely comforted, remembering how Cisco touched them. He knew his own imperfections better than anyone. But he walked with grace through an imperfect world, and the world will be better because of the lives he touched."
PERSONAL NOTE FROM A RECORD COMPANY
There's a new "country" song called "A Special Delivery letter to Heaven" which Cisco would have gotten a kick out of. About a little girl who writes to her dear-departed Daddy to give him the latest word on Mommy and other current events. We wish we could waft a special delivery missile up to Cisco, to tell him that his final record turned out well. He was concerned about it. Wouldn't admit how much he cared, though. Very casual -- "Ought to do another session," he said, a few weeks before the end, "get a few songs down on tape. Don't have to release them. Do anything you want with them. Just put them down on tape, see how they sound." "Anytime, Cisco," we said, inwardly convinced that Cisco would never face a microphone again -- he was just too weak.
"Anytime" turned out to be a few days later, 6:30 P.M., Monday, March 6, 1961, past closing time at Vanguard, a few of us waiting for elevator to take us down. Elevator came up with Cisco and guitar: "How's tonight for a session. Thought we could do some recording, pardner, but it's not important, you've got to get home, we'll set another time, maybe next week." Session started 10 minutes later, and continued for four hours, with Cisco alone in the studio and we left him alone because he we knew he didn't want us to see the agonizing pain which tore his body as he sang.
After a few minutes all the pretense was gone -- on both sides. Cisco and we knew and admitted without any necessity for words that this was the last record, and we all knew that Cisco would never see or hear it, and we were making it so that a part of him would never be lost. The engineers got a little weepy after a while but it didn't hurt the Ampexes none, they just kept on rolling. indelibly preserving the gently told and masterfully controlled performances which were the hallmarks of Cisco's last days. But Cisco wouldn't have wanted us to prejudge his record, he would want us to wait and see what the people thought of it. So we'll wait until the returns are in and then try to let him know -- by special delivery if possible. MS. for Vanguard Records