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Friday, February 18, 2011

As Ever, Cisco

On February 10th, 1961, Lee Hays sat down with his friend Cisco Houston in his Brooklyn apartment to record what would be Cisco's last recorded interview. The folk icon was dying of stomach cancer. Lee Hays said of those last days, "It is not given to every man to know the manner and time of his dying. Cisco Houston knew, and he was glad to know. For, knowing how much time he had left, he found time to do things he had never had time for. He wrote songs. He visited old friends and looked up old buddies he had not seen for years. He wrote letters. He spoke into a microphone hours of memories, reminiscences about Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, his family, his boyhood days in the California depression, the story of his service in the merchant marine, his days as a union organizer, his trip to India as a singer for the State Department; opinions about the world and politics, his estimate of friends and individuals and folksong magazines, his views of life and death...The last time he went out, he went to a folk song concert in Pasadena. He wanted to go, saying, 'I've heard every song, but what the hell, might as well hear them one last time.'"

Houston was one of the greats. Crooning in his silky-smooth voice, he sang both original and traditional songs. Moses Asch, the co-founder of Folkways Records, was very fond of him: two of the first LPs he issued on the label were Houston's. The Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections have quite a few materials that deal with Cisco Houston. Correspondence in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection (from which the title of this post derives), photographs by Robert C. Malone of his last performance at Gerde's Folk City in New York in February 1961 (see photograph above), and recordings and transcripts of his last interview with Lee Hays. His recordings for Folkways are here, too, of course, and still carry the warmth they did when they were first issued in the early 1950s. One of our favorite recordings by Houston is on his album Cowboy Ballads (FW 2022). "Diamond Joe" is a song about a particularly greedy rancher who mistreated the cowboys in his employ. (Listen to a sample.)

The Lee Hays interviews are a veritable treasure trove of Americana.  It's easy to get lost in these interviews--the stories are told in such an honest and personal way that before you know it, three hours have passed and you've been to migrant camps in California, a ship in the middle of the Atlantic during the second World War, and the streets of New York City. In the following excerpt from the transcripts of his interviews with Lee Hays, he talks about his experiences as a young, train-hopping, struggling worker and folk singer, the folk music scene, and how at the height of the Folk Revival he was often approached by college students trying to emulate this lifestyle (kids these days!). He manages to maintain a sense of optimism for the future of these youth while reminding them that quitting school and riding trains is a stupid thing to do if you don't have to.

"People were, well, like the Almanac Singers...there was a whole spirit they created then. It was a real and infectious thing. Of course...that came out of that era of the 30's and 40's, where everybody seemed to have a little more purpose for everything.

"People sort of seem to be more non-directive now. But actually, it's kind of find more and more of these young people, college kids mainly, who seem to want to go back to that, or at least they're trying to in some way...they're starting a little hootenanny night...and they're singing songs and talking about...traveling the way us guys used to, Woody and the Almanac singers and you and they mention this and they all say, 'Gee think I should hitch hike or hit the trains or get an old car and do it'...there seems to be a movement. It's not a big thing, but there are enough of these kids who sort of want to identify with this sort of thing. You know, the ones who are smart enough to know that there's something more to life than rock and roll and all this damn nonsense, this is the whole beauty of this folk thing which gives their lives a little more meaning.

"There's so much that they can identify with it and, of course, when they identify with the music itself...they identify with the personalities involved...such as Woody and Pete and you and the rest of them and they want to...sort of duplicate it in some way...[but] my advice has always been along these lines that you know, there really isn't anything to be gained in just quitting school and bumming around the country just for the sake of doing it, for any romantic idea because others have done it and you think it will enrich your life...we did it because we had to do it...people don't go out and just ride these old freight trains and freeze their ass off all night and hunt for jobs here and there because it's the romantic thing to do. We did it because there wasn't anything else you could do, and nothing we would have liked better than the old story, the good honest job and honest pay and one spot where you could raise a family and people trying to get ahead and trying to go up in the world and not just have a nation of train riders...fine, keep this activity on campuses and appreciate the songs, sing them, have a respect for the music you're handling, when summer time comes, fine, if you get two or three guys together and you want to spend it romping around the country, I say this is a wonderful idea. There's a lot to be learned...from this that you could never gain in any other way...[don't] quit school and romp around the same saloons just because we had to do it years ago. That doesn't make sense. [Lee Hays pipes in] These lines--believe it or not, you wont find it so hot [Houston laughs and finishes] if you ain't got the do-re-mi."

1 comment:

  1. I just happened to stumble on this--thanks so much. Cisco has meant a tremendous amount to me over the years. It's always seemed sad to me that he died just as the folk revival was really gearing up. He could have had the success and financial security that had long eluded him but, as the quotes here show, he handled his situation with marvelous grace. Thanks agin.