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Friday, April 26, 2013

Mule Skinner Blues - Cisco Houston

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. Houston was a regular recording artist for Moses Asch's Folkways recording studio. He also performed with such folk/blues musicians as Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and the Almanac Singers. 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, Cisco began to play the guitar, having picked up an assortment of folk songs from his family. It is reported[1] 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.

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  1. Muleskinner Blues was originally written in the 1930s by the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers. Know as Blue Yodel #8 and a hit at the time, it is actually an adaptation of an earlier song known as the Labor Blues. It has been recorded by a who's who of artists including Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Jose Feliciano, Jerry Reed, and Chet Atkins. My first recollection of this song however was The Fendermen version released in 1960. My cousins who lived next door were always singing songs they heard on the radio and this one stuck with me. For me however, the definitive version of this song was recorded by the band Muleskinner which was sort of a bluegrass supergroup that included Pete Rowan, David Grisman, and Clarence White. The precursor to New Grass Revival which included Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, and sometimes Leon Russell.

  2. After posting the above comment I also discovered versions of Muleskinner Blues in my collection by Van Morrison, Old & In The Way (Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements et. al.), and James Cotton!