Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Best Of The Vanguard Years

Mike Regenstreif

Sing Out! Magazine (Vol. 45 #1, Spring 2001)

Cisco Houston, a frequent traveling buddy and singing partner of Woody Guthrie's, was one of the pivotal figures of the folk music revival of the 1940s and '50s that paved the way for the boom of the late-'50s and '60s. He sang in a smooth baritone voice with a style that paved the way for younger artists like Tom Paxton. Unfortunately, Houston was only 42 when he died of cancer in 1961. He deserves to be remembered as an important and influential artist.

In 1994, Smithsonian Folkways, as part of their The Folkways Years series, released an excellent CD of 29 songs recorded by Houston over the course of his career. The 24 recordings in this set date from Houston's last years and draws material from two LPs, The Cisco Special and Cisco Houston Sings The Songs Of Woody Guthrie, as well as five tracks that are released for the first time on this disc.

I grew up listening to, and loving, Houston's Folkways recordings and to the Vanguard LP of Guthrie songs but never heard The Cisco Special. Being used to hearing Houston accompanied by only his guitar and perhaps an additional mandolin, banjo or fiddle, I was surprised to hear Milt Okun's middle-of-the-road pop music orchestrations that are included on some of The Cisco Special songs. While the orchestrations occasionally work well, as on "Way Out There," they do detract from several, including the arrangement of "This Train" that opens the CD. Some of the songs from the LP, like "Nine Hundred Miles," do feature Houston with just guitar accompaniment.

The tracks taken from Cisco Houston Sings The Songs Of Woody Guthrie are Houston at his best. Houston was one Guthrie's greatest interpreters and uses his smooth baritone to communicate the songs in a straight-forward style that despite, or maybe because of, his association with Guthrie, is not in the least bit imitative. He sings songs like "Pastures Of Plenty" with the conviction of one who lived the life that he sings about.

The five tracks that were previously unreleased are vintage Houston and include a couple of other Guthrie songs as well as strong versions of classics like "Diamond Joe," "Tramp On The Street" and "John Hardy." Despite the syrupy arrangements on a few of these songs, Houston's Vanguard Years are an important complement to his Folkways Years.

Mike Regenstreif:
Host/Producer: Folk Roots/Folk Branches -- CKUT, Montreal
Reviewer/Feature Writer: Montreal Gazette
Reviewer/Feature Writer: Sing Out! Magazine
has graciously allowed us to reprint this review. Thanks, Mike!

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