Cisco & Lee
Notes by Bill Adams
In February, 1961, Cisco had only a couple of months to live. He knew it, and his friend Lee Hays, of the Almanac Singers and The Weavers, sat him down beside a tape recorder. There, in New York City, before Cisco made his final journey home to Los Angeles, (and before he did the radio interview with Les Claypool there which is available on this site) Cisco and Lee preserved seven hours of biographical data and opinions on a variety of topics. The tapes are part of the Lee Hays papers at the Smithsonian. Hays apparently intended to write a biography of Cisco, but likely could not find the time or money or good health to get it done. There is a transcript in the archive, but it has never been published in a form that has been available to the general public. Probably, it never will be.
Scholars, however, have quoted from these conversations liberally in various album liner notes, and later, in CD booklets. Excerpts also appear in the few biographical accounts of Cisco's life and career which appear in encyclopedias of folk or roots music. Through a private source, I had the opportunity to listen to this material in March, 2005. Much of it is interesting, much outdated, and there are many digressions. Making a full transcript would not reward the huge effort required, and the taped talks do not a biography make. Although Hays tried to get some facts and dates nailed down, he did not seem to approach the project with scholarly preparation, although he was quite an intelligent man. The final product discloses as much about Woody Guthrie and Lee Hays as about Cisco. Now, more than 40 years since Cisco's voice was stilled by death, the best material on the tapes shows up in Jim Longhi's book Woody, Cisco and Me which is reviewed on this site.
So, we offer a summary of the main contents of the tapes, roughly divided into 75-minute segments. I first learned about the existence of the conversations 20 years or more ago, and have wanted desperately to hear them ever since. Now I have, and as a person who became a Cisco fan before his death, and who has always liked Lee Hays as well, I found the effort and time involved to have been worth it. Cisco talks like he sings... clean and brave and clear and strong. I liked him even more when the tapes ended. His intelligence and decency shine through.
THE FIRST HOUR, PLUS A LITTLE MORE
Lee Hays starts off with a terrible awkwardness, mentioning his own recent birthday to Cisco, who is five years younger and will die in less than eight weeks. Cisco handles this with grace and deflects a question about his own fate by commenting that Woody Guthrie's battle with Huntington's Chorea requires much more courage to face. Cisco does say he was operated on for his cancer seven months earlier, only to have the disease recur quickly in places surgery cannot help. He says "I don't have to worry about the world anymore. I don't have to watch television. I feel sorry for you guys who will be left behind to deal with things. You see things a lot clearer, when you are in my condition."
Cisco tells Lee of his experiences early in the Depression, which hit in 1929 when Cisco was only 11. His father lost everything, and left the family to go back East to try to work, but he quit sending money after a while and he never returned. Cisco, his mother, his older brother Slim, and his sister lived on what was then the outskirts of Los Angeles. They moved to Bakersfield for a while. His sister went to live with her grandmother in order to ease the load on Cisco's mom, for whom he demonstrates great respect. Cisco says he was more than six feet tall by the time he turned 16. He did not graduate from high school, apparently due to the need to find work to help the family. He worked in the hops fields in Washington State, getting back home by hopping the freights. He took a job in a pickle factory, signed up for some night classes at a local junior college, and studied drama. When he was 18, he and Slim hitchhiked to the East Coast, living in Baltimore with relatives in 1936 for several months. In 1938, he worked as a potato picker, which he depicts as "exhausting work for four dollars a day." He tells a story about being stranded in the small town of Toya, in West Texas, for a couple of days, waiting to steal a ride on a train, totally broke. He describes the cruelty of some of the railroad employees who had the assignment of catching hoboes and discouraging them from riding for free. Cisco says he saw two riders fall to their deaths on the tracks, run over by the cars. His conclusion: "It's no fun on the road. There is NO romance or glory doing it on freight trains. Buy a car instead."
SECOND HOUR, PLUS A BIT MORE...
Lee Hays asks Cisco to talk about his brother, Slim, who died when his Merchant Marine vessel sank in World War II. (Read the story elsewhere on our site.) Cisco responds that Slim Houston was "a good guy, a voracious reader, politically aware and very courageous." He says he came with Slim to New York for the first time in 1936, and then came back with him in 1939, when they got jobs "barking" outside of competing burlesque houses, trying to lure customers inside. Then Cisco digresses, in response to Lee Hays' rambling questions, and speaks a little about his role in the 1948 revival of "The Cradle Will Rock" which lasted about a month on Broadway. He had a small part as a reporter in this musical about labor organizing. He also mentions that in 1958 he was an extra in the Audie Murphy film "The Wild and the Innocent" which co-starred Sandra Dee and Gilbert Roland. Cisco says his scenes lasted less than five minutes in a less-than-successful movie. (Unfortunately, this Audie Murphy effort has not been transferred to DVD or video as of 2005. And on the Murphy website, Cisco is not listed as one of the 24 top cast members.) Cisco makes it clear that he is more modest about his actual acting jobs than some liner notes from his Folkways and Vanguard albums would have fans believe. He does exhibit great pride, however, in his work in a play, "The Banker's Daughter" because after Lloyd Bridges left the leading role to go to Hollywood, Cisco got his chance in the part and got good reviews.
Lee and Cisco then spend a large chunk of time giving opinions of the current (1960) state of the acting business, and of various recent films and plays.
Returning to his memories of brother Slim, Cisco notes that Slim also suffered from nystagmus, the hereditary eye condition that had limited Cisco's vision all his life. He talks at length about his time in the Merchant Marine, which was much more extensive than just the three trips described in Longhi's book, the ones with Woody. (See Bob Greenberg's memories of living with Cisco in Texas in 1948, as an organizer for the left-wing faction of the National Maritime Union, elsewhere on this site.) Lee presses Cisco to reveal his reactions to news of Slim's death, but Cisco does not indulge Hays for long, apparently that grief still hurt and was something Cisco preferred to keep as a private sorrow. Cisco does talk about seeing ships sunk in the convoys he sailed with, and about his own three experiences on ships greatly damaged by mines or torpedoes.
Lee Hays reminds Cisco of how popular the Paul Robeson recording of "Ballad for Americans" became in the early '40's. Hays also tells some stories of The Almanac Singers, the first folk music "super group" with himself and Pete Seeger and Woody and others. The group's recordings, now available on CD, did not feature Cisco (he was on the ships or on the West Coast in 1941-42) but Cisco did perform with various members when his voice and guitar were needed and he was in town. That leads into the first extended talk about the exasperating genius, Woody Guthrie. They mention that Woody was a voracious reader and a compulsive writer, who could do eight hours or more at the typewriter in a single day or night.
THE THIRD HOUR, AND ABOUT HALF OF THE FOURTH...
Cisco remembers Woody's Los Angeles radio show, and singing with him and Will Geer in the California labor camps. He briefly met John Steinbeck, author of "The Grapes of Wrath" which in turn inspired Woody's five-minute summary "The Ballad of Tom Joad" (and which, to some of us, holds up better here in the 21st century than the original book or the movie version with Henry Fonda.) Lee talks about watching Woody create songs, and Woody's then-unpublished manuscripts, which were dominated by sex, politics and religion. The pair discuss how each of them slowly came to realize the nature and the severity of Woody's mysterious illness. They also describe the devotion that British folk performers and folk fans exhibited for Woody, and for Leadbelly and for Big Bill Broonzy in the late 1950's. They share some funny anecdotes about Woody's great love for cars, despite his inability to take proper care of them or to pay for them. Lee discusses the time he was allowed to see the personal papers of the famous union organizer and songwriter Joe Hill (see our review of a biography of Hill elsewhere on this site.)
Next comes a long, long discourse about 1960-era politics and philosophy, dominated by Hays. The perceived weakening of capitalism, and perceived growth of worldwide socialism, is covered extensively. The pair ruminate on trends in art, the escalation of atomic power, and on early exploration of outer space. Cisco even predicts a kind of "Star Wars" system, but unlike Ronald Reagan's in the 1980's, Cisco expects it to become an offensive weapon, not a defensive screen. The pair also opine about the need for nuclear disarmament.
THE FOURTH HOUR AND PART OF THE FIFTH...
In this section, Cisco laments the spending priorities of the final years of the Eisenhower Administration (JFK was inaugurated as President just a couple of weeks before this taping) by claiming that federal spending on heart disease research was a meager $25 million per year, while Americans personal spending on "get well cards" was allegedly one billion dollars a year. He does not name his source for this statement. Cisco also claims that the socialized medical system in Russia, due to the universal practice of free physical checkups, resulted in much earlier detection of cancer than was true in the USA, where it took money to visit the doctor. (Given his personal health situation, Cisco can perhaps be excused for his bitterness. As he notes later in the taping, he never made any real money until the final year of his life.)
Lee and Cisco then launch into long tales of Woody Guthrie: his mysterious ability to compel lovely women to mother him and have sex with him, in spite of his notoriously poor personal hygiene. Cisco notes that Woody exhibited "a definite masculinity" despite being a petite fellow with childish ways. Cisco says "I always thought Woody to be a handsome man. However, he was not skilled in the give-and-take parts of human relationships. He was a stubborn anarchist in that regard." Houston also admits that in the Merchant Marine, Woody was not a particularly good worker at his official duties, but he was popular with the crew and was a tremendous morale-builder. Cisco says, "Woody chose fun over work whenever possible, but he was a man, not a cry-baby, and he was personally courageous." Houston adds that "Woody taught me how to play chess, and I beat him in the very first game and in every game thereafter. He was unhappy about that."
In a vivid description, (also available in Jim Longhi's book), Cisco recounts the time their troop ship struck a mine. He says if the explosion point was merely 15 feet closer to their sleeping quarters, he and Woody and Jim Longhi would have died.
Lee Hays admits that he and Guthrie never had an affectionate relationship after meeting at the time of the formation of The Almanac Singers around 1940, after Woody became a bit famous for his "Dust Bowl Ballads" album on RCA Victor. He grants, however, that Woody was the "cement" of the Almanacs, the group's creative center. He complains that Woody had quite a paternalistic, know-it-all side which could be extremely irritating. Cisco agrees that Woody liked getting his own way, and was quite generous with material goods, but not with showing affection for his friends.
THE LAST OF THE FIFTH HOUR, AND PART OF THE SIXTH...
(By this time in the project, both Cisco and Lee seem comfortable, but having tried to cover Cisco's early years and also record his opinions and philosophies, the topics which come up do so haphazardly. It is clear that in addition to the sounds of both men lighting cigarettes, ever-present throughout the talks, and even washing dishes, now some whiskey has been shared.)
Lee talks about the Almanac Singers' three recording sessions. Cisco describes the Arab children of Senegal he saw when his merchant marine vessel came into port there. He says the Senegalese wanted U.S.-made bars of soap much more than they wanted U.S. coins. They had nowhere to spend the coins, of course. Then the conversation switches to their friendship with black blues and Gospel performers Sonny Terry, who was blind, but sweet, and Brownie McGhee, who was alcoholic and abrasive. Cisco, somewhat blind himself, marvels at how Sonny adjusted to his handicap (he was sighted until he was almost a teenager) and inspired everyone who knew him. (Sonny played on some of the earliest Moe Asch recordings with Woody and Cisco.) Sonny and Brownie, who played together for decades but who were not always friends off-stage, went with Cisco on his tour of India in 1959, a three-month adventure sponsored by the U.S. State Department as a cultural exchange. Lee had toured England and Scotland with Terry and McGhee. Both men note that Brownie was bitter at the coming of "rock and roll" which he viewed as a white takeover of black rhythm and blues, pushing aside the black creators of the sound and earning all the big money for young white acts.
Also along with Cisco on that India tour was folksinger Marilyn Child. Cisco describes how he and Marilyn mastered the India national anthem in the Hindi language. He marvels at how well the touring performers were treated by the people of India. He notes "I had one of the grandest times of my life there. I was sad when it was over." Cisco notes that the audiences in India were astonished by the sounds Sonny Terry could get from his small harmonica. Lee and Cisco then discuss some other performers of the recent and continuing so-called "Folk Revival." Cisco praises Ramblin' Jack Elliott for his guitar-playing and showmanship. (As of 2005, Jack is still performing, known as Woody's last pupil and one of Bob Dylan's major teachers.) He also praises Pete Seeger. He has special compliments for agent/manager/promoter Harold Leventhal. ( Leventhal was a major influence in the Folk Revival and became essential to the commercial success of Pete Seeger in the 1960's after Cisco's passing. But at the time of this comment, Leventhal had been Cisco's manager for about 18 months.) Cisco says that Harold was "A damn good manager, a great friend, a genuine human being, and totally honest." Cisco says he made more money in the 18 months since Harold became his manager than in his entire career before that. He says he is grateful to Leventhal, because now Cisco had a bit of cash to leave to his mother after his death. Lee Hays joins in the praise for Harold, commenting that Harold's genius for "music business organization" was a tremendously valuable "artistic contribution." (Leventhal had also taken on the chore of managing Woody's income while he was hospitalized with chorea and unable to write or perform, so that Guthrie's children had some security.)
END OF SIXTH HOUR, AND THE REST OF THE INTERVIEW...
Lee mentions Cisco's interest in hypnosis as a medical tool, and Houston elaborates on that briefly. A young singer, identified only as Bob (but definitely not Dylan!) sings "Puttin' on the Agony, Puttin' on the Style", a song made popular by the Chad Mitchell Trio around that time. He also does "Sloop John B" which is sometimes known by other titles. Cisco can be heard giving him a few tips about singing and playing, from a spot farther away from the microphone. Cisco praises the stringed folk-instrument skills of Eric Weissberg, who had played with him on the Vanguard release "The Songs of Woody Guthrie" when Eric was only 20. Cisco then tells some more WWII stories, mostly those published many years later in Jim Longhi's book.
Lee and Cisco agree that World War II was "a just war, that had to be won." They also agree that the special needs of a crisis, such as wartime, brings out the best in Americans, helping suppress many forms of prejudice and spurring people's interest in getting more education and in bettering themselves, and in choosing lives with a chance for more success than the parent generation had.
(AT THIS POINT IN THESE NON-CONTINUOUS TALKS, WHICH ALMOST CERTAINLY TOOK MORE THAN ONE DAY, I GOT THE IMPRESSION THAT BOTH LEE AND CISCO WERE BEGINNING TO EXHIBIT SIGNS THAT, IN THE IRISH PHRASE, PERHAPS THERE HAD BEEN "TOO MUCH OF THE DRINK TAKEN." VOICES ARE LOUDER, WORDS ARE SOMETIMES SLURRED, AND INTERRUPTIONS OCCUR.)
Cisco returns to the subject of 1950's movie-making and the "star system" and the "empty content" of most films. Lee asks him, in a phrasing which will sound curious out-of-context, "What ARE you, exactly, Cisco?" The singer replies with "The concept of 'the brotherhood of man' permeated my consciousness from a young age. I saw my father ruined by the stock market crash in 1929, and a few years later, I got old enough to get interested in the working man's struggle to survive and to unionize."
(With about 20 minutes left in the project, Lee and Cisco are joined by a visitor identified only as Charlie, who takes no major role in the talks.)
Cisco and Lee then talk of Jesus, and the origins of Christianity. They apparently then digress to criticize Cisco's first album on the Vanguard label, "The Cisco Special" which both see as a failure. Cisco admits that he tried for a commercial sound in hopes of having a hit which could bring in some money. Cisco at the time of the tapes was able to see that it was over-produced, something he corrected for the LP of Guthrie songs.
Cisco again says that dying is not as hard on him, the one terminally ill, as it has been on his friends and family members. Knowing he is about to die, he says, leads him to think almost exclusively about relationships in his life, and good experiences. He thinks about material things "not at all. The relationships are the most important thing. The ups and downs of life become trivial, but the friendships are vital."
The lengthy project concludes with Cisco praising Lee Hays for his intelligence, his strengths and depths, and for his being "a solid, loving friend to so many people" often at the expense of his own career progress and his own best interests.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: ONE OF THE DISAPPOINTMENTS TO A FAN WHO WISHES TO HAVE A DEEPER LOOK INTO CISCO'S HEART AND MIND IS THAT IN ALL THE SEVEN HOURS, NO GIRLFRIENDS OR WIVES ARE EVER NAMED. NO MENTION OF EVER FATHERING A CHILD, ALTHOUGH SOME SAY HE DID. STARING AT DEATH, SAYING THAT RELATIONSHIPS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, CISCO HAS STILL LEFT US WITH NO FIRM IDEA OF WHETHER HE EVER FELL IN LOVE, OR WAS DEEPLY LOVED BY, ANY SPECIFIC WOMAN. WE KNOW HE DATED AND SOMETIMES LIVED WITH BINA TANNENBAUM IN THE '40'S. WE KNOW THAT AN UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN WAS IMPORTANT TO HIM NEAR THE END OF HIS LIFE. WE HAVE READ THAT HE USED TO DATE FOLKSINGER KATIE LEE. SOME BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES SAY HE WAS BRIEFLY MARRIED, TWICE. YET WITH LEE HAYS, NONE OF THIS HISTORY IS SHARED.)