Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cisco Houston—The Matinee Idol in Woody Guthrie’s Shadow

Cisco Houston.

He should have been way more famous.  Instead Cisco Houston is known only among the hardest core of older folk music devotees and as an historical footnote—Woody Guthrie’s closest friend and running buddy.  But Houston not only had a phenomenally wide and varied repertoire of folk songs that documented the American experience and working life and a rich baritone that some folks thought was too good for folk music, but he was movie star handsome.  Maybe it was because his early death at age 42 in 1961 just as the second folk revival was gathering steam deprived him of the opportunity to shine for the legions of younger fans.
Gilbert Vandine Houston was born on August 18, 1918 in Wilmington, Delaware where his father was a tin knocker—a sheet metal worker.  He was the second of four children.  He was still in school when the family moved across country and took up residence in Eagle Rock, a Los Angeles, California suburb.
Young Gil was recognized as a very bright student despite a serious disability--nystagmus or dancing eyes, a condition of rapid involuntary movement of the eyes which reduced his vision and made him rely mostly on his peripheral vision which greatly affected his ability to read.  He still got top grades by keenly paying attention to class room discussion and absorbing it.  It made him an audial learner, a perfect skill set for a man who became noted for being able to absorb songs like a sponge.
His supportive family may have read to him, because he gained a school reputation for being exceptionally well read.  Eventually he trained himself to use his limited vision to the best of his ability and did become a devoted reader.
Gil also picked up the guitar and a love of singing from his family from whom he also learned many folk songs.
The Great Depression hit the family hard.  After extended unemployment, his father left the family in pursuit of a job and virtually disappeared.  Young Gil was forced to quit school and find what work he could to support the family.  From 1932 at the age of 14 he took whatever he could find. 
A couple of years later he and his brother Slim hit the road themselves becoming part of a generation of young men forced into the Hobo jungles and the constant chaise after the mere rumor of work.  They roamed the Western states hopping freights or hitch hiking until they got separated.  He worked in migrant farm camps, on construction projects, as a pearl diver—dishwasher, day laborer, and even despite his vision problems as a cowboy.
Gil traveled with a battered guitar strapped to his back and entertained his fellow wanders around camp fires and picked up spare change busking or by plopping down in a corner of a saloon or café and starting to sing.  He also picked up scores, maybe hundreds, of songs on his travels, especially cowboy and hobo tunes. 
It was during these years that he picked up the nickname Cisco.  It came not, as would later be reported, from San Francisco or because of his supposed resemblance to the Cisco Kid with his dark brown hair and the pencil moustache that he grew.  He acquired it from some adventure or misadventure in the small town of Cisco, California near the Nevada border in the old Placer County mining district.
By the late 30’s Houston’s music began to become a more reliable source of income that casual labor.  He began to pick up bookings for pay at saloons and clubs riding the popularity of cowboy music.  In 1938 at age 20 with years of hard traveling already behind him, Houston returned to Los Angeles to seriously pursue a career as a performer.
Not only did Houston pick up fairly steady work in area clubs, but he was encouraged to use his good looks to explore acting.  He picked up extra work and uncredited walk-ons and non-speaking parts, mostly at the poverty row studios that specialized in two-reel oaters.  He was befriended by an older actor and folk singer named Will Geer.  Geer was also a committed radical and drew Houston into his circle of union organizers, rabble rousers, and Communists.  Given Houston’s working class background and life experiences, he became an eager recruit.
One day Geer brought Houston with him to visit another friend, Woody Guthrie, at the KFVD studio of his cowboy music radio show Woody and Lefty Lou.  The connection was almost immediate.  Guthrie took to the younger man.  Their personalities were different, but complimentary.  Guthrie was often effusive and animated nearly to the point mania, always eager to sing for anyone, anywhere at the drop of a hat, but also sometimes moody and subject to black depressions.  Cisco was quiet and reserved, more than a little shy.  Always more of a listener than a talker.  But he had a natural cheerfulness and open good nature that no amount of the many curve balls life had thrown at him could discourage.
Soon the three of them, Geer, Guthrie, and Houston were playing shows at migrant camps, rallies, and at union hall benefits.  They performed a mix of cowboy and hillbilly music, Guthrie’s Dust Bowl songs, and pointed, topical ballads including rousing union songs.  When Guthrie lost his radio show, he and Houston went even farther afield.  They parted ways for a while when Guthrie briefly returned to Texas to be re-united with his wife and children.

Singing with the Almanacs--Bess Lomax Hawes, Cisco, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Sis Cunningham.

Then Geer famously invited both of them to join him in New York.  Both men dropped what they were doing—which wasn’t much—and made a bee line east.  Guthrie held up in Geer’s apartment and Houston found accommodations, eventually with Huddie Leadbetter—Leadbelly—and his wife.  From there things would start percolating.
Once again Geer introduced his friends to his wide circle of activist and performing friends.  After informal living-room gatherings some of them began to perform together as the Almanac Singers mostly at union halls and at events and benefits for various left organizations.  The Almanac were less a well defined group than a loose collective of singers which presented themselves in various combinations depending on who was available.  Core members included Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Bess Lomax, and Sis Cunningham.  In addition to Houston others who occasionally performed with the Almanacs included Burl Ives, Sonny Terry, and Josh White among others.
The Almanac repertoire included a number of union songs and pacifist songs by Guthrie and Seeger which reflected the Communist line after the Hitler-Stalin Pact.  They were just getting established when Houston signed on with the Merchant Marine in 1940, disguising his visions problems that should have disqualified him.  That meant he missed the recording sessions for the Almanac’s 78 rpm album Meet John Doe which featured anti-war and anti-draft songs.  But just as the album came out in June of 1941 Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and there was a mad scramble to recall the records and destroy the undistributed copies.  Seeger and Guthrie went into overtime writing new songs urging entry into the fight against fascism including Guthrie’s The Good Ruben James, a ballad about the sinking of an American merchant ship by a German U-boat which also spurred enlistment in the Merchant Marine.

Shipmates Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, and Jim Longhi sing for their fellow seamen at the National Maritime Union Hall in New York.
Meanwhile Houston was already at sea daring the horrific losses of the Battle of the Atlantic.  He had already survived the sinking of one ship when he came ashore in New York and resumed singing with the Almanacs between voyages.  When the Almanacs broke up in 1943, Houston and his friend Jim Longhi convinced Guthrie to join the Merchant marine with them while Seeger was drafted and entered the Army.  The three shipped out together three times in convoys on the SS William B. Travis, SS William Floyd, and SS Sea Porpoise.  The Travis struck a mine in the Mediterranean Sea and managed to limp to port at Bizerte, Tunisia. 
On all three of their voyages together Houston and Guthrie regularly entertained their shipmates and played for other crews in port.  On their final voyage in 1944 the Sea Porpoise was carrying 3,000 Troops for the invasion of Normandy.  The pair frequently played more formal deck concerts for the men on the long and dangerous voyage.  The ship was torpedoed by a U-Boat off of Normandy on June 5.  She managed to make it back to England to be repaired at Newcastle upon Tyne before sailing back to the States.
It turned out to be Guthrie’s last voyage—his seaman’s papers were suddenly yanked for his Communist connections.  Houston stayed in the Merchant Marine but used this time ashore with Guthrie to do his first recordings.  At the same famous 1944 recording sessions by Moses “Moe” Asch with Guthrie and Sonny Terry where Woody laid down many of his most famous songs, including many of the Dust Bowl ballads, Houston sat in as an accompanist and was also recorded on his own.  
In the post-war period Houston worked steadily as a musician, studied acting, and began to get stage parts.  Most notably he appeared in the 1948 revival of Mark Blitzstein’s ground breaking radical musical in a cast that included Will Geer, Alfred Drake, Vivian Vance, and Jack Albertson directed by Howard Da Silva.  Despite the stellar company the revival only ran 34 performances amid revived charges that it was Communist propaganda.

Leadbelly, Paul Robeson, and Cisco Houston at a benefit for the National Negro Congress in New York in 1946.
Asch went on to found Folkways records and in 1948 material from the sessions began to be released, helping to spur the post-war or first folk revival.  Houston was featured on two of the first releases, including one as Guthrie’s side man and a collection of children’s song on Folkway’s Cub Records label, Nursery Rhymes Sung and Played by Cisco Houston.  Folkways would go on to release several more records over the next decade or so often re-using the same recordings in different packages.  In addition to frequently appearing on Guthrie recordings and with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and others some of his solo recordings included. Cowboy Ballads (1952), 500 Miles and other Railroad Songs (1953), Traditional Songs of the Old West (Stintson, 1954), Hard Travelin’ (1954), and Cisco Sings (1958.)
These recording introduced or popularized many songs that became staple of folk music including the children’s ditty The Cat Came Back and the bluesy, haunting ballad Five Hundred Miles.  These recordings were for a specialized, limited market of hard core folk music fans and never made Houston much money.  But they did raise his visibility as a performer and helped him get work.  Through most of the late ‘40’s and ‘50’s Houston toured as a journeyman musician, making a living but not much more.  He never rose to the fame of old pals Guthrie, Seeger, Hayes, Josh White, Burl Ives, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee although he often shared the stage with all of them at clubs or concert bookings.  He crisscrossed the country dozens of times on improvised, self-organized tours.  He also made occasional radio appearances.
In some ways the lack of recognition insulated Houston from the Red Scare era black balling that nearly destroyed the careers of Seeger, Hayes and the members of The Weavers.  Also, he had never taken a CP party card.  That is, he thought he had escaped the worst until just when it looked like his career might take off.
In 1954 Houston was hired to host a radio folk music program based in Denver, Colorado which was syndicated to more than 50 stations by the Mutual Broadcasting System.  It was billed as the Gil Houston Show under his original name.  This was likely a ploy by the station to obscure his identity as Cisco and his known associations.  If so, the ruse might not have worked.  Despite good rating the show was abruptly cancelled after less than a year on the air.  Houston and his friends suspected the Black List might have caught up to him.
Houston was briefly married twice.  Virtually nothing is known about either spouse and he had no known children.  But his good looks and quiet charm appealed to many women and he was known to have had many, usually brief, affairs.
After the failure of the radio show, Houston shifted his base of operations back to California, from which he had been mostly absent for almost 20 years.  He continued to record for Folkways and for other small labels and appeared where he could in clubs, on college campuses, and even church basement coffee houses. 

Then, starting in 1958 his long years of struggle seemed to be turning around with the rise of the second Folk Revival.  He was signed to a new, commercial label Vanguard which released his successful LP The Cisco Special and a follow-up, Songs of Woody Guthrie.  He rapidly gained the reputation as the leading interpreter of his old friend’s songs just as the ailing Guthrie, no longer able to perform, was becoming an icon of the new folk scene. 
Although he was getting better bookings at larger venues, Houston was beginning to rub up against the reverse snobbery of the folk music community.  Some critics charged that his rich baritone voice was too polished to be authentic—a holy term often used to denote raw and off-key screeching.  Houston complained to an interviewer:
There’s always a form of theater that things take; even back in the Ozarks, as far as you want to go. People gravitate to the best singer...We have people today who go just the other way, and I don't agree with them. Some of our folksong exponents seem to think you have to go way back in the hills and drag out the worst singer in the world before it’s authentic. Now, this is nonsense...Just because he’s old and got three arthritic fingers and two strings left on the banjo doesn’t prove anything.
A new crop of younger performers, however, were taking note of Houston and he became, at barely 40 years old himself, a mentor and inspiration to several of them. 
The Black List was fading rapidly.  So fast that in 1959 the State Department asked Houston along with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee to do a tour of India.  On the way back Houston stopped to play, and even to record some sides, in Paris, and sing in England.

A duet with Molly Scott on Houston's 1960 CBS TV special Folk Sound, USA.
On his return in 1960 CBS TV made him the host of a special, Folk Song, USA which featured Joan Baez, John Lee Hooker, Flatt and Scruggs, and others.  He got great reviews as a warm and authoritative host.  The early summer special was a pilot of sorts for a folk music series.  That same summer Houston headlined, at the invitation of co-founder Pete Seeger, at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Folk music, and it seemed Houston himself, were poised to take off and become the next big thing in American culture.  But shortly after the Newport appearance Houston was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  It had already metastasized and he was told that it was fatal.
Knowing that he had only a few months to live, Houston chose to keep doing what he loved and what gave meaning to his life—performing despite, toward the end, being in constant pain.  The illness took a toll on the once strapping and robust body of a man who had spent much of his life doing hard physical labor.
Houston also returned to the studio to record one last album for Vanguard.  He completed the final sessions of Ain’t Got No Home weeks before he died. 
In a letter quoted in a memorial article in the folk music magazine Come For to Sing by Lee Hays, Houston wrote:
If you know my situation, which is a matter of weeks, of months at the outside, before the wheel runs off... well, nobody likes to run out of time. But it's not nearly the tragedy of Hiroshima or the millions of people blown to hell in the war, that could have been avoided. These are real tragedies.....
Houston died in San Bernardino, California on April 28, 1961 at the age of only 42.
He was widely mourned in the tight knit community of fold performers even if still not widely known to the public.  Tributes poured in.  Tom Paxton, Peter LaFarge, and Tom McGrath all wrote songs in tribute.  Bob Dylan could not fail to mention him in his Song to Woody just as Peter Yarrow did in his salute to Josh White, Goodbye Josh. 
Smithsonian/Folkways has re-packaged much of Houston’s work on Folkways and also issued a complete multi-CD edition of the Ache Sessions with Woody Guthrie.  There is also a compilation of his Vanguard recordings but Cisco Houston Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie is the only one of his several LP’s now available on CD.  He also crops up on recordings with Leadbelly and with Sonny Terry as well as several folk anthologies. 
No known film footage has ever been found of Houston performing and even still photos are somewhat scarce.  But mostly he lives on as a semi-legendary character in a semi-mythical version of Woody Guthrie’s life.  Woody himself made Cisco Houston one of the few characters identified by his real name in his highly fictionalized autobiography Bound for Glory.  Their Merchant Marine pal Jim Longhi wrote about their experiences in his memoirs Woody, Cisco and Me: Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine.  And Houston shows up in several plays and musical reviews about Woody.  In the mind’s eye, they are always singing together in some seedy saloon, killing time before catching a fast freight together for some distant job.


  1. I've been listening to Cisco since I was a young Dylan freak and he really deserves a revival, the best interpreter of Woody Guthere. I learned more in this article than anywhere else Excellent piece and thank you for writing it.

  2. Well I have a copy of the Folk Song USA show. He's pretty good too!

  3. Patrick--the life span of things on the web being what it is, I wonder if I could take this content and post it on I would certainly include your name and a link. You can fine contact info for me there. Please say yes!