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Cisco Houston - Saint James Infirmary

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Uploaded on Oct 24, 2010

When cancer claimed the life of forty-two-year-old Cisco Houston, American folk music lost one of its most authentic voices and a legendary figure who came to symbolize one of the most unique economic and social periods in this country's history. His romantic image and life experiences have been immortalized in his music, which, during his lifetime, he often sang and played with his pal Woody Guthrie.

Cisco (Gilbert Vandine) Houston was born on August 18, 1918, in Wilmington, Delaware. He moved with his family to the West Coast, where he spent the majority of his childhood, and later adopted his first name of Cisco from the Sierra Nevada town near the Donner Pass. He had picked up folk tunes from members of his family and he learned to play the guitar before finishing high school in Los Angeles, He began his itinerant life during the Depression years and he worked at various jobs out West, and as a ranch hand in Colorado Houston expanded his repertoire with cowboy songs. Throughout his travels, he carried his guitar slung over his shoulder, and music was always incorporated into his daily life. He performed informally for friends and fellow workers and occasionally he shared his music with audiences at clubs and over Western radio stations. His life-style attracted him to others who shared a similar philosophical outlook, and his friendships with Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and Jack Elliott were natural extensions of his life and music...

Houston and Guthrie traveled and sang together in the years before World War II, parting company when Houston joined the merchant marine, and sailed to ports around the globe. After his stint in the service, Cisco Houston stayed in New York for a while before crossing the continent to resettle in Hollywood, He rejoined forces with Guthrie and often teamed up with Leadbelly, John Jacob Niles, Burl lves, and other prominent performers and recording artists. He was part of Moe Asch's first Folkways recording sessions, and was among the singers who often performed and recorded with the Almanac Singers, along with Butch, Pete, and Bess Lomax Hawes, Sis Cunningham, Gordon Friesen, Arthur Stern, Josh White, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, and Earl Robinson.

During the fifties, Cisco Houston performed college, club. and church concert dates, with memorable appearances at Town Hall and Madison Square Garden in New York City and the 1960 Newport Folk Festival. He toured India with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Marilyn Child under the auspices of the State Department and the American National Theater and Academy; and, on his way home, he performed for enthusiastic audiences in England and Scotland. He was also a guest on numerous radio and television programs. His recording career boasted widespread representation on labels including Disc. Stinson. Folkways, Vanguard, and others. In 1965, Oak Publications put out a songbook entitled 900 Miles: The Ballads, Blues and Folksongs of Cisco Houston.

One of Cisco Houston's ardent admirers was a young singer by the name of Bob Dylan, who used to hitchhike out to Bob and Sid Gleason's apartment in East Orange, New Jersey, where Woody Guthrie spent almost every weekend while a patient at Grey stone Hospital in central New Jersey. Cisco Houston, Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, and other friends of Woody Guthrie often dropped by, and Bob Dylan was particularly attracted to Houston, who, by then, was dying of cancer. Cisco Houston continued performing at Cerde's Folk City and other clubs in New York, never dwelling on his fate or letting the terminal disease prevent him from sharing his music. By the end of February 1961 he had made his final appearance on stage, and after remaining in New York for several more weeks, he returned to his West Coast home. He died in San Bernardino, California, on April 29, 1961.

-- Folk Music: More Than a Song; Copyright © 1976 by Kristine Baggelaar and Donald Milton. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, NY.

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