August 18, 2015
CISCO HOUSTON (1918–61) didn’t look like a folk singer (way too handsome), and his voice was more Howard Keel than Woody Guthrie. Known as bumming buddy and interpreter of Guthrie, Leadbelly, and others, he was a footnote in the rock age. Well, he lacked the rough edge. His music was melodic, self-confident, and smooth, and he enunciated bad-ass lyrics in a theatrical baritone. But he had experience, taste in material, and the good judgment when recording to opt for spare, unkitschy production, which had the effect of lonesoming his vocals. He recorded his last album, I Ain’t Got No Home, weeks before his death from cancer; the songs — Guthrie’s chilling “East Texas Red,” Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” the sorrowful title ballad — hover around murder, suicide, fantasies of release. All are sung true, straight, and concert-hall proper, but with a husked-out quality, a forward-staring stoicism that conjures Gary Cooper approaching high noon. Listen to that voice long enough, and its polish comes to seem a way, not of faking feeling, but of faking out the listener.
Encountered on the 1959 LP The Cisco Special, “Old Smoky” draws a groan: the song is too familiar, the voice too forthright, the feeling too fulsome. But listen to it. Cisco warms the lyric, warms your ear, until what sounded false clarifies as simply a formal mode of expression, a certain man talking a certain way. Then, too suddenly, he’s come to the last line. You don’t want it to be the last line: you want a bit more. You don’t get more, so you want to track back, isolate the moment when your groan became a held breath. You want to figure out how, like a master illusionist, Cisco Houston dissolved the wall of wood he’d placed between himself and the song, himself and you, leaving only a brief, ghostly vibration in a hollow of silence. And you’ll never know why, that last line echoes: an enticement, a promise, an eternal farewell.
READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).