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Cisco Houston

Known for his post-teenage-era singing alliance with WOODY GUTHRIE, Cisco (he took the name from a small town between Sacramento, CA and Reno, NV), became the legend’s sidekick and travelling troubadour, often swapping the odd song or three.
Born Gilbert Vandine Houston, August 18, 1918, Wilmington, Delaware, he was quickly uprooted after his family (his mother and father were originally from North Carolina near the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia) flitted to south California when he was only two years old. With his eyesight poor from bouts of nystagmus, HOUSTON attended elementary school in the Eagle Rock Valley, but was again uprooted when the Great Depression of the early 30s led to his unemployed father deserting and his mother taking the family to Bakersfield; the lad and one of his three brothers trekked all over the States to find work.
Always a keen theatre enthusiast, Cisco journeyed back to Hollywood in 1938 where he struck up a friendship with actor and future political activist Will Geer. Almost immediately, after hearing WOODY GUTHRIE on a radio show, they both trekked to visit the folk singer, performing along the way with the likes of BURL IVES. Both HOUSTON and GUTHRIE subsequently performed together on stage in New York, and even when the former was drafted into the merchant marines (along with the latter), he still found time to get together when on leave and play for U.S. forces benefits; Cisco side-lined with The ALMANAC SINGERS.
Early recordings of this period were sparse but `Night Herding Song’ (flip by LEADBELLY) could be found on one side of a Various Artists 78, `Songs To Grow On: School Days’ in 1946, while three subsequent numbers (`The Rambler’, `On Top Of Old Smoky’ and `Sowing On The Mountain’ – the latter with WOODY GUTHRIE) featured on V/A 10” lp, `Lonesome Valley’ (1951). HOUSTON sang high-tenor on a number of GUTHRIE’s albums, while his celluloid debut came in 1948 by way of a bit part in the Broadway musical, The Cradle Will Rock.
Over the course of the following decade, Folkways Records issued a handful of 10” HOUSTON sets, NURSERY RHYMES, GAMES & FOLK SONGS (1948) {*6}, COWBOY BALLADS (1952) {*6}, 900 MILES and other R.R. SONGS (1953) {*7}, HARD TRAVELIN’ (1954) {*6} and CISCO SINGS (1958) {*6}.
A cultural exchange by the US State Department (alongside Marilyn Child, SONNY TERRY and BROWNIE McGHEE) took him to India in 1959, while his return secured TV spots as a presenter on Folk Sound, U.S.A. (June 16, 1960) and a Newport Folk Festival appearance. Vanguard Records came a-knocking, releasing the first of two efforts, THE CISCO SPECIAL! {*6} later that year. Sadly, there came only one further LP, SINGS THE SONGS OF WOODY GUTHRIE (1961) {*7}, due to the death of Cisco on April 29, 1961; he’d been diagnosed with cancer a year earlier. Respected by every folk artist, a handful of memorials arose including TOM PAXTON (`Fare Thee Well Cisco’), PETER LaFARGE (`Cisco Houston Passed This Way’), Tom McGrath (`Blues For Cisco Houston’) and BOB DYLAN (`Song To Woody’). HOUSTON was well suited to the modern-era trad-folk movement and could’ve easily adapted into the post-DYLAN establishment; check out Cisco’s own compositions, `Diamond Joe’, `Rambling Gambling Man’ and Woody’s `There’s A Better World A-Comin’’.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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