For Cisco Houston - The End Of The Road
by Bill Wolff
(Based on a series published in the bulletin of the Los Angeles Folk Music Society, Good News! in 1961.)
"Cisco Houston's dead and gone;
Left me here to sing this song"...
As it must come for all men, the time for Cisco had come. We knew it...he knew it. Yet, when the news came, it stabbed at our hearts and tore at our brains. And I heard his singing, his earthy talk, and the sound of his footsteps on the streets of New York. I recalled his love of people -- ordinary folk. His scorn of "Golden Boys" and their power-lust. His contempt for the conniver, the petty and mean. His hate of the exploiter and the racist joke.
I remembered his humility, his easy smile, his sea-going stride, the strange look of his eyes, and his working-class pride.
"NOTHING BUT THE FACTS, MA'AM!"
His name: Gilbert Vandine Houston. Born August 18, 1918 in Wilmington, Delaware. Died April 27, 1961 in San Bernardino, California. His mother, Mary, a member of one of the "First Families of Virginia" was wed at the age of 15 to Adrian Moncure Houston, a sheet-metal worker. Cisco was the second of four children. His brother Adrian, known as Slim, was 15 months his senior. He was a merchant seaman who died in World War II when his ship was torpedoed. His sister, Mary Ann, known as Susie, is married and lives with her family in San Bernardino. Younger brother John will be 36 in July, and studies the piano: "Cisco made me promise never to give it up", he recalls.
In November, 1919, the family moved to Eagle Rock, California. Cisco attended school there. He enrolled at Eagle Rock High, but never graduated. His teachers couldn't quite figure him out. One told his mother "Gilbert's a bright boy, but he doesn't read." Teacher had discovered that although Cisco recited his lessons flawlessly, he wasn't reading. He was giving out what he memorized from the recitations of fellow students. So he went to work in a pickle factory. That job didn't last. Cisco couldn't tell the color of one label from another. And jobs were few and far between, because the Great Depression was on.
"LOOK! WE ARE THE DEPRESSION BASTARDS!"
Those were the days of the disinherited, the unemployed, the unwanted. Cisco's father, now an "idled" sheet-metal worker, deserted the family. Who can tell what went through that poor man's mind? One less mouth to feed? The job over the hill that wasn't there? Cisco never spoke much about his dad, the man who gave him his first guitar, the man who joined the frightened army of the unemployed that swarmed over America.
In the lean, hungry years of the 1930's, Cisco was bitten by the movie bug. One of his great ambitions was to become a movie star. In later years he did manage to land bit parts in several productions. He also appeared in the Broadway stage productions of "The Cradle Will Rock"* and "Dark of the Moon" and "Banker's Daughter." He also worked in summer professional shows in Greenwich, Rhode Island. But when jobs are scarce, and the dream that is America grows dim, the fire in a young man's heel is not mere wanderlust, but often the desperate drive to survive.
"I'VE DONE SOME HARD TRAVELLING"
Cisco and his brother Slim hit the road for New York, travelling, as Lee Hays aptly described it, "By sunburned thumb and side-door Pullman." In New York, Slim landed a berth as an Ordinary Seaman and shipped out on a freighter. Cisco found a few odd jobs, including a stint as a "barker" in front of a burlesque house. "Barking" was a far cry from the show-business Cisco sought, so he moved on -- back to Los Angeles. At home, the pot was still empty and the cupboard bare, and there was no one around to answer "What's the matter here?" There were some, however, who had answers, or thought they did. They organized little theaters to air their views and make articulate their voices of protest. They were the creative children of the Depression, who wrote poetry, short stories and plays. They published "little magazines" and ran art shows on the sidewalks and in the parks. They joined in demonstrations by the jobless, formed committees, wrote manifestoes, talked revolution even, and argued endlessly about "art versus propaganda."
In New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit -- in fact, wherever men and women pondered "What's the matter here?", guided (or misguided) groups sprang up with "answers." Where a previous age counselled "Go West, Young Man", now voices called "Go Left, Young Man, Go Left!" Cisco, caught in the swirl of this movement, joined a theater group in L.A. which considered itself "anti-fascist" and performed before migratory workers, trade unionists, intellectuals, or whoever would listen. Cisco played guitar, sang, acted, and more importantly for his development as a "people's artist" he met Will Geer*, an actor of many accomplishments. Together, they "discovered" Woody Guthrie.
"I LEARNED A LOT FROM WOODY"
In an interview taped by Leslie Claypool Jr. on April 8, 1961, and subsequently broadcast over KRHM-FM in Los Angeles, the dying Cisco recalled his first meeting with Woody: "I met Woody in 1938. He had a little radio program here. I forget the station. He used to come on every day, singing. I liked it because he was a relief from the great horde of hillbilly singers you heard then. He sang his own songs in such a straight-forward, down-to-earth kind of communication. One day when Will Geer was out here making a movie, we just went down to the station and decided we'd haul Woody home with us, that he was a guy we ought to know. So we did that. We started singing together and developed a fast friendship."
Woody's own account of the meeting, a little more fanciful perhaps, runs as follows: "I run into a guitar-playing partner, standing on a bad corner. He called himself "The Cisco Kid." He was a long-legged guy who walked like he was on a rolling ship. A good singer and yodeler. He had sailed the seas, busted labels in a lot of ports, and had really been around in his 26 years. He banged on the guitar pretty good. Like me, come rain or shine or cold or heat, he always walked along with his guitar slung over his shoulder from a leather strap."
With Will Geer footing the bill for food and gas, they took off in Woody's patched-up '31 Chevy, touring the migrant worker camps up and down the state of California. Sometimes helped by other singers like Burl Ives or actors like Lionel Stander, they put on shows for relief funds to help refugees of the Spanish Civil War. "I sorta learned the guitar then," Cisco told Claypool in the taped interview in 1961. "Not nearly as good as he played it, but I learned a lot from Woody," he added.
"WE COME WITH THE DUST, AND GO WITH THE WIND"
Cisco said, late in life, "I have kids come to me all the time, asking me about my days on the road. It's a romantic thing to them. I try to dissuade them. We did that, in those days, because we had to, not because we wanted to." He could have told them about working in a desert potash plant where the temperature soared to 118 degrees, or of the small town of Cisco, whose name he borrowed for his performing handle. It was located high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, not far from where the famous Donner Party of migrants froze to death in the mid-19th century. He could have told them about picking spuds in Wyoming, felling trees in Washington State, walloping cargo in the Port of San Francisco. He might have told them about swinging the hammer on road gangs, or giving and taking his licks with the National Maritime Union in battles with goon squads. He also toured as a ballad singer, accompanying the Martha Graham troupe of modern dancers. These experiences, and many more, he could have told the kids about. As Woody once wrote: "Cisco and me sung for our chips."
"THE EYES HAD IT..."
As the '30's ended, Cisco and Will persuaded Woody to go to New York. Cisco recalls "I said he'd be a big hit there." Woody recalled it this way: "I stayed with Will and Herta Geer in a fancy apartment up on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, which rented for $150/month. I thought at first that was the rent for the entire year!" Cisco joined him in Manhattan and they began singing together at union halls, on picket lines, at political rallies and even in night-clubs. This was early in 1940. They started going to sea together, even before Pearl Harbor, and continued during the war.
"I remember one time we got torpedoed," Cisco said, "and here comes Woody up on deck with guitars, mandolins, fiddles hung all over him. The mate is saying 'You can't get in the lifeboat with all that stuff. We'll be lucky to get the men in.' But the ship didn't sink on that occasion, so we were all right."
Back in the states in 1944, Cisco, Woody and Sonny Terry, the blind harmonica player, went up to the recording studio operated by Moses Asch. "Moe Asch, the son of the famous writer Sholem Asch, took us in," Woody wrote. "He cranked up his machinery and told us to fire away with everything we had. We yelled and whooped, beat and pounded, until Asch had taken down some 120 odd master sides. We tried hilltop and sunny mountain harmonies, and the wilder yells and whoops of the dead sea deserts, and all of the swampy southland and buggy mud-bottom sounds that we could make. We sung to the mossy trees and to the standing moon, and Moe Asch and his secretary, Marian Distler, worked through their plate glass there in the studio."
Cisco shipped out again with the Merchant Marine, and had two more ships torpedoed from under him. He traveled to Africa and on the run to Murmansk. He cried like a baby when he heard that Slim had died at sea. After America had entered the war, he had tried to enlist, but was turned down to his poor and uncorrectable vision.
"IF THINE EYES OFFEND THEE..."
It must come as a shock, even to close friends, to learn that for all practical purposes, Cisco was virtually blind. It was not merely color-blindness, but a tragic, strange incurable condition known as "nystagmus." I can recall countless instances of friends approaching Cisco and not being recognized by him until they spoke. Some thought Cisco was absent-minded. Others thought it wqs due to his shyness, introversion or reserve. Many others, I suppose, were simply offended. The fact is that nystagmus afflicts the central portion of the eye, rendering it practically useless, leaving only the outer rim with some degree of peripheral vision. Bill Oliver remembers the time he saw Cisco across a street, and called to him, only to have Cisco yell back "Come over and help me across this street!" Alice Daggett recalls her younger days when she and Cisco went to the movies, and her annoyance that he insisted on sitting way down front, almost on top of the screen. And I must confess there were many times I thought Cisco had "tied one on" when I would find him sitting alone, in a dark corner of a room, with hands pressed against his eyes. The truth is that nystagmus results in a painful sensitivity to light and a maddening, continual pulsation of the eye in a rapid, back-and-forth movement.
To be sure, Cisco could read. He was, in fact, a well-read person, but only at the cost of holding the page at an oblique angle in dim light -- in effect, at his nose's end. If he could avoid it, he never did this in public. He was proud, perhaps even vain, loathe to reveal this physical shortcoming. He wore specially prescribed glasses, but again, if he could avoid it, never in public. It was only when he acquired a special set of contact lenses that he stepped with more sure-footed confidence in front of an audience.
Finally, it is my hunch that this condition, more than any other factor, marred the two marriages Cisco entered into in the short course of his life. He knew that his affliction was not only congenital, but through some strange quirk of the genes, bypasses the women (although it is transmitted by them as well as the men) and is visited upon only the male members of the family. Both of his brothers had nystagmus also.
"AND WHEN I AM FORMULATED, SPRAWLING ON A PIN..."
After World War II ended in the late summer of 1945, Cisco began the long uphill climb to the heights he aspired to in theater and in music. He accomplished an interesting blend of actor and folksinger, always with good taste and a sensitivity that marked him as an artist of tremendous potential. Curiously enough, he was not always a folksinger...the metamorphosis from "singer of folk songs" to "folksinger" did not really begin until he hit the road and lived the songs he picked up from oil boomers, railroaders, hoboes, cowhands, fruit-pickers and all the people he migrated with in search of the elusive jobs. He learned a lot from Leadbelly, Lee Hays, Burl Ives, and other singers, but most of all, he admits, from Woody Guthrie.
Cisco's tenor voice deepened over the years into a rich baritone. He used it with an honesty -- no vocal tricks, sham mimicry of other performers, or phony inflections -- which moved a reviewer for the New York Times to write: "...a group of recordings, and the best sung of them all is '900 Miles and Other Songs', a ten-inch Folkways disc on which Cisco Houston sings to his own guitar accompaniment. One turns with gratitude to a voice that has some MUSIC in it, and which can easily sustain notes for the proper count."
When Cisco had his own radio show briefly in Pueblo, Colorado, a listener wrote: "If you sing forever as you sang yesterday, that will be grand!" Even "Fortune" Magazine dubbed him "A great folk music artist." He was that and more. He identified completely with the common folk, and sang their songs and gave unstintingly of his talents to their causes. Cisco had a prodigious memory, perhaps as a way of compensating for his bad vision, and he knew hundreds of songs. It is hoped that someday, someone will collect and publish a discography of the songs he recorded for Asch, Disc, Folkways, Vanguard, Decca and Coral, to mention but a few of the labels that carry his wonderful voice. It is fitting that his last and unquestionably finest album, "Cisco Houston Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie" came as the final tribute of one great folksinger to another.
Cisco not only placed his own stamp upon the songs he sang, but also brought them into new stature and new life. The creative process of the performing artist did not stop there. He also wrote his own songs. Among them are "Great July Jones", written in collaboration with Lewis Allen; "Crazy Heart"; "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and "Bad Man Blunder*". That song was the last, co-written with Lee Hays of the Weavers, and issued as a single by The Kingston Trio in the summer of 1960, when Cisco was still alive to enjoy it. There were innumerable verses, of course, improvised with Woody on the spot when they were performing on the saloon circuits in the hard-time days. Woody described one such instant song in his autobiographical novel, "Bound for Glory". In recalling the scene, he gave the reaction of a listening sailor, in what could well be the final assay of Cisco's contribution to the American heritage: "Got some real honest music," the sailor declared.
In December, 1959, Cisco headed up a group of American folksingers making a tour of India, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA). Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and Marilyn Child went along. It was a triumphal tour, but for Cisco, it marked the beginning of the end. He had been ailing before the trip, and after it, the old ache flared anew. He joked to his wife, "I probably have cancer." On August 2, 1960, he entered a hospital in New York. He was operated on August 9th, and the surgery confirmed the "joke." Like the home-boy he was, he returned to California, to Eagle Rock, and then to his sister's home in San Bernardino, where he died on April 27, 1961 -- "Home is the singer, home from the sea; but his songs sail on, through eternity."
- "The Cradle Will Rock" is a famous Theatre Guild musical by Marc Blitzstein about labor organizing. A film version about the controversial creation of the show was released in the late 1990's with an all-star cast and some of the original songs.
- Will Geer won national attention late in his life when he created the role of Grandpa in the 1970's TV drama "The Waltons." He also continued to run a tiny theatre company on the side to produce plays which challenged the culture and politics of the majority throughout his long life.
- The Kingston Trio's version of "Bad Man's Blunder" is available on the Capitol CD "The Kingston Trio Collector's Series." The single reached Number 37 on the pop charts in the late summer of 1960. Trio co-founder Dave Guard played 12-string guitar on the session, held on the day his son was born. It was the first 12-string ever made by the Gibson Guitar Co. The song originally appeared on the Trio's fine LP "String Along." More