Gilbert Vandine "Cisco" Houston (August 18, 1918 – April 29, 1961) was an American folk singer and songwriter who is closely associated with Woody Guthrie due to their extensive history of recording together.
Gilbert Vandine Houston was born in Wilmington, Delaware, on August 18, 1918, the second of four children. His father, Adrian Moncure Houston, was a sheet-metal worker. The family moved to California while Houston was still young, and he attended school in Eagle Rock, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.
During his school years, Houston began to play the guitar, having picked up an assortment of folk songs from his family. 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, Houston came to be regarded as a well-read individual.
The Great Depression
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 Gil 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, including the town of Cisco, California, the place from which he took his name.
During his travels, Houston 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.
Houston returned to Los Angeles in 1938 and pursued a career in acting. During this time Houston, 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 Houston 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.
World War II
Despite Houston's poor eyesight (which rendered him nearly blind by the end of his life), he managed to enlist in the Merchant Marine in 1940 and served in World War II. Houston survived three separate torpedoing of ships he served on.
When he wasn’t shipping out, Houston 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 Houston 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.
Post World War II
During the years following the war, Houston engaged in acting, music, and traveling, sometimes recording. In 1944 Houston, 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 Houston 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, Houston 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.
Death and legacy
Diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, Houston 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, Houston 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.
Houston’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 Houston.
Song as tributes to, or with 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
- "Goodbye Josh" by Peter Yarrow
- "Never Tire of the Road" by Andy Irvine
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; "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.
- Cowboy Ballads (Folkways FA 2022) (1952)
- 900 Miles and Other R. R. Songs (Folkways FA 2013) (1954)
- More Songs By Woody Guthrie And Cisco Houston (Melodisc MLP12-106) (1955)
- Cisco Sings (Folkways FA 2346) (1958)
- Cisco Houston Sings Songs of The Open Road (Folkways FA 2480) (1960)
- Sings the Songs of Woody Guthrie (Vanguard VRS 9089) (1960)
- I Ain't Got No Home (Vanguard VRS-9107) (1962)
- Nursery Rhymes, Games & Folk Songs (Folkways FC 7606) (1963)
- Passing Through (Verve Folkways FV/FVS 9002) (1965)