It is reported that Houston was regarded as highly intelligent during his time at school, despite the nystagmus that afflicted his eyesight, leaving him to rely heavily on peripheral vision. He learned primarily by memorizing what he heard in the classroom. Despite his difficulties, Cisco came to be regarded as a well-read individual. When the Great Depression struck, Houston began working to help support his family. In 1932, his unemployed father left home and a few years later Cisco went on the road, accompanied initially by his brother Slim.
The years were spent traveling and working odd jobs throughout the western United States, always with a guitar at his side. Gil Houston passed through many places, included the town of Cisco, California, the place from which he took his name. During his travels, Cisco expanded his repertoire of traditional songs, particularly in his time employed as a cowboy. He performed music informally wherever he went, and eventually began occasionally playing at clubs and on Western radio stations. Cisco returned to Los Angeles in 1938 and pursued a career in acting. During this time Cisco, along with friend and fellow actor Will Geer, visited folk singer Woody Guthrie at a radio studio in Hollywood.
This marks the beginning of the close friendship between Guthrie and Houston. The taciturn Cisco proved an ideal counterpart for the frenzied Woody, and the two men began traveling together, touring migrant worker camps, singing, and promoting unionism and workers’ rights, eventually making their way to New York City. Despite Houston's poor eyesight (which rendered him nearly blind by the end of his life), he managed to enlist in the Merchant Marines in 1940 and served in World War II. Houston survived three separate torpedoing of ships he served on. When he wasn’t shipping out, Cisco remained in New York and performed with the Almanac Singers, a left-wing folk group that often included Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, and Woody Guthrie, among others. After the United States entered World War II, Woody Guthrie joined Cisco in the Merchant Marines along with Jim Longhi, who documented this period in a memoir. Throughout three wartime trips, the two folksingers gave performances regularly, boosting the morale of the crew and, on the third trip, three thousand troops. During the years following the war, Cisco engaged in acting, music, and traveling, sometimes recording.
In 1944 Cisco, along with Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry, had taken part in recording sessions at the studio of Moses Asch. Four years later, Asch founded the label Folkways, with Cisco performing on two of the first LPs issued by the new company. Houston appeared in the Broadway theatre play The Cradle Will Rock in 1948 and in 1954 began hosting the Gil Houston radio show. The show was quickly cancelled, which led to some suspicion of blacklisting. Throughout the fifties, Cisco performed regularly at clubs, churches, and colleges. He recorded for various labels, including Folkways, Stinson, Disc, Coral, Decca and Vanguard, and was a guest on a numerous radio and television programs. Houston toured India in 1959 under the sponsorship of the State Department with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Marilyn Childs.
In 1960 he hosted the television special, “Folk Sound U.S.A.” on CBS, and appeared later that year at the Newport Folk Festival. His recordings for Vanguard began with the album “The Cisco Special”, followed by a collection of Woody Guthrie songs. Diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, Cisco continued performing until no longer able. Two months before his death, he recorded a final album, “Ain’t Got No Home.” He returned to California, and died April 29, 1961 in San Bernardino. In the months preceding his death, with the knowledge of his imminent demise, Cisco talked at length with his old friend Lee Hays, who recorded their sessions for a project he dubbed “The Cisco Tapes”. Hays held onto the tapes for two more decades, until his own death in 1981, but never completed creating something from the material. Cisco’s death was mourned by a growing folk music community which included young songwriters including Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs, a new generation of musicians who revered such performers as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and Cisco too. Song tributes to and mentions of Cisco Houston include: "Fare Thee Well, Cisco" by Tom Paxton "Cisco Houston Passed This Way" by Peter La Farge "Blues for Cisco Houston" by Tom McGrath "Song To Woody" by Bob Dylan "Christmas Time in Washington" by Steve Earle Cisco Houston was distinguished by his voice, a smooth baritone sometimes considered too polished for folk music.
His voice was criticized as being too good, too professional, and lacking in authenticity. Cisco responded to this accusation: "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." His repertoire included folk songs and traditional songs from different arenas of American life - cowboy songs, union songs, railroad songs, murder ballads, and more. He is also known for his renditions of Woody Guthrie originals. Though not known as a songwriter, Houston did contribute some original tunes. These include "Great July Jones", written with Lewis Allen; "Crazy Heart"; "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man"; "Bad Man's Blunder", written with Lee Hays; "Diamond Joe"; "The Killer" (words traditional); "What did the deep blue sea say", and "Dollar Down". Some of his compositions were included in the songbook 900 Miles, the Ballads, Blues and Folksongs of Cisco Houston, issued by Oak Publications in 1965.
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