The Cisco Special!
Notes by Lee Hays
Cisco Houston was hitchhiking across Kansas with a two-dollar guitar, six songs, three chords, and an empty stomach.
The boys said they liked that kind of music and allowed that one day they would get a music box and learn to play it. Cisco's empty stomach prompted him to offer guitar, songs and chords for sale, on the spot. He wrote out the chords and songs and the boys drove off satisfied, leaving Cisco with a big fifty-cent piece and directions to the nearest beanery.
Since then, Cisco has gone across the country many times, by sunburnt thumb and side-door Pullman, by car, train and plane. He carries a good guitar and a repertory of hundreds of songs that he sings with much understanding, because he has lived them.
He was Gilbert Houston until he stopped off for a spell of work in a small California town called Cisco; when he left he borrowed the name and has never returned it.
Cisco fits the scholar's definition of the wandering folk singer as well as anyone except Woody Guthrie, who was a sidekick of Cisco's for a long time. They traveled and sang together, and they both had close personal ties with Martha and Huddie Ledbetter, whose home was, at times, the only one they had. But there is a big difference between Cisco and other wandering singers. Woody, for one, has a built-in instinct to wander, and a restless need to move on, and he could never settle down until he got too tired to go on further. In my opinion, Cisco is a homebody. But for a homebody, he has done more traveling than he can remember.
When I first saw him he was a barker for a 42nd Street burlesque house in New York City. I saw him on network television shows, and in a Broadway play. He learned a long time ago that nobody ever gets the work he can do best, and wants to do, every time, even when he knows what he wants to do. So he hitchhiked to Wyoming at spud-picking time, and picked spuds. Another time, he was Martha Graham's balladeer in a dance tour.
In logging camps he swang a double-bit axe and learned which end of a six-foot crosscut saw to pull. He has had parts in films, and has done singing commercials for a beer company (and never plugs a product he has not personally tested.) He worked in a desert potash plant where the heat hit 118 degrees, and in a pickle factory. Once he went to Denver to look for a job and wound up with his own daily radio show on the network, and a fan club. He worked in warehouses, and on a road gang. Like all good folk singers, he writes songs, and has seen them performed in shows like Sid Caesar's.
He has given concerts in scores of colleges from Syracuse to Berkeley, and is now planning a tour of colleges and radio and television stations to introduce this new album. As a homebody who had to go all these places to do all these things, Cisco learned to carry his home with him. Of course he has been caught in the drizzling rain on a dark night with no money and no place to go. As a seaman in the merchant marine he was torpedoed on the way to Murmansk, and on the way to Cherbourg, and in the war, he lost a brother and good friends.
Even then he found a home, for a time, on the beaches of Sicily, in Oran and Tunis, where kids used to cluster around him to beg for food and songs. He can walk into your home and right away start a good talk with the kids. He knows where your refrigerator is, and your record player and he has already read most of your books. After he has been with you a short time, you begin to feel more at home yourself.
As you listen to the songs in "The Cisco Special!" I think you will get the feeling that Cisco Houston is visiting with you in your home, singing for you, and with you, about as he would do it as if he had walked in, in person. I know that is his aim, and I know he would appreciate a word from you, as you would say it in your living room when the guitar is laid by. His mail will always reach him, wherever he is, at home.