This is another cowboy song from Cisco Houston, off that first American Folk Songs album, which I’ve kept singing pretty regularly as a kind of apologia pro vita mia. Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the child of two professors, it was obvious that my roots were different from Woody’s or Cisco’s, or from all the heroes of the pirate and western sagas I liked to read. So this ballad about someone who looks like a city dude and talks educated English, but is nonetheless an authentic cowboy, had a special appeal.
I’m clearly not the only one who felt that way, since a lot of other singers have recorded this over the years, starting with Jules Verne Allen in 1928. Allen was one of the first genuine cowboys to record, and his name suggests the literary tastes that sent a lot of boys (and some girls) west in search of adventure. One of them was N. Howard “Jack” Thorpe, who first collected this song from someone named Randolph Reynolds on New Mexico’s Carrizozo Flats in 1890, and included it in Songs of the Cowboys, the first issued collection of cowboy songs, which he self-published in 1908.
I recently picked up a copy of Thorpe’s memoir, Pardner of the Wind, which explains that he was born in New York in 1867, the son of a wealthy lawyer, and grew up between there and summers in Newport, honing his riding skills by playing on a polo team with Theodore Roosevelt. He went west in his teens, and by 1890 was a full-fledged cowboy, working as an “outside man,” which meant his job was to travel beyond the home ranch in search of cattle that had strayed into other herds. In the process, he was visiting all the other ranches and camps in southern New Mexico, and along the way he picked up a lot of songs — though he explains that most came it bits and pieces, a verse here and a verse there, and “many of the songs had to be dry-cleaned for unprintable words before they went to press.” He refers to this song as “The Educated Feller,” and writes, “It’s as typical of the range as ants in chuck wagon biscuits.
This gaudy gunfighter ballad is from the singing of Cisco Houston. When I decided I would grow up to be a rambling musician, my heroes were Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, and if I’d had to pick one of them, it would probably have been Cisco. Part of the appeal was the warmth of his voice and the easy lope of his guitar, but more than that it was the songs: he liked songs that told stories, and he had an actor’s gift for making those stories come alive.
Cisco Houston SingsAmerican Folk Songs was my favorite album for quite a while, and I still can sing literally every song on it — not necessarily every verse, but pretty close. It was the first place I heard “St. James Infirmary,” “Midnight Special,” “Pallet on the Floor,” and “I’m Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” but “The Killer” was my favorite . It was like a four-and-a-half-minute cowboy movie, and I remember spending an afternoon acting out the story as Cisco sang, with my best friend, Sarah Carter — I’m guessing she played Dobie Bill, since I would have wanted to do the death scene, but we may have traded off. It is also where I learned the phrase, “the vagaries of fate.”
Cisco learned this song from Katie Lee, whom I’ve talked with a few times over the years, since she was a close friend of Josh White’s, as well as writing a good book of cowboy songs and verse, Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle, and making a bunch of recordings, and just being a hell of a fascinating person. She’s still very much around at age 95, and it’s well worth checking out her website, www.katydoodit.com, and browsing through her interviews, and film clips, and book projects.
“Talking Union” was the title song of the Almanac Singers’ most popular album (back in the days when “album” meant literally that: a bound album of 78 records). As I mentioned in the last couple of posts, my first records included a bunch of left-wing 78 albums, including Talking Union, though that one was missing its cover and I only learned what it looked like about forty years later.
It was the first “talking blues” I ever heard, though thanks to Woody and then to Bob Dylan, there were a lot around in the 1960s. They were all distant descendants of a blackface minstrel comedy number recorded in the 1920s by a fellow named Chris Bouchillon. Woody did that version, then spun it off into songs about pretty much anything he wanted to talk about, and Pete picked up the pattern and wrote this one with Millard Lampell.
I was eight or nine years old when I first learned this, and a lot of it was obscure to me — What’s a “straw boss”? What’s a “steering committee?” I’m still not clear on straw bosses, but I helped form a steering committee when we put together the Boston Globe Freelancers Association under the auspices of the National Writers Union and led a walk-out of three hundred freelance writers, photographers, and designers who refused to sign a new and confiscatory contract. I was sorry to go, because I liked writing for the Globe, but I figured that after thirty years of singing union songs it was time to step up and be counted.
This is probably the first blues song I learned, though at the time I just thought of it as another union song. It was on the one Almanac Singers’ album my grandparents had, which I eventually learned was called Talking Union — I didn’t know the title at the time because the cover had fallen off before it came into my hands.
I learned most of the songs in that set, and this was a particular favorite — it had an upbeat, swinging rhythm and the guitar part was great. Many years later, when I was researching a biography of Josh White, it occurred to me that he must be the leader on this one, so I went back and listened with fresh ears. As it turned out, Lee Hays was singing lead — and very likely wrote it, since he was a specialist in adapting gospel songs for union organizing — but Josh’s guitar was unmistakable. I don’t play it like he did, mostly because I do it in a different key, but I’ve kept a couple of his licks in there.
When I was maybe six years old, my parents bought me a little portable record player. It was about a foot square, closed up like a suitcase, and had four speeds: 16, 33 1/3, 45, and 78. They wouldn’t let me play their records on it, but I had a few children’s folk LPs — one by Tom Glazer, and a couple of Everybody Sing! anthologies — and somehow I also ended up with my grandparents’ 78 albums.
My mother’s family were refugees from Nazi Vienna and old-line Communists — till the day he died, my grandfather had the complete works of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in his home office, in German. (Also the complete works of Joseph Conrad, Jack London, and Mark Twain.) I don’t think they were politically active after coming to the United States, but along with dozens of classical albums, they had the classic Communist record collection of the early 1940s: Paul Robeson, the Red Army Chorus, the International Brigades from the Spanish Civil War, Josh White, the Almanac Singers, and the Union Boys. The Union Boys wasn’t actually a group — it was just a bunch of singers who got together to record an album’s worth of songs about union organizing and the war effort, among them Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Tom Glazer, Josh White, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, plus one side by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston.
I played those records constantly and learned most of the songs, and these two were particular favorites. I suppose part of the appeal was the war — despite my parents’ pacifist leanings, I played with toy soldiers and dug trenches and all that kind of stuff, and it was exciting to sing about rolling into Berlin with your buddies from the union and going after Hitler. I didn’t understand all the words, of course — I don’t think I knew the meaning of either UAW or CIO — but thirty years later, when I helped organize a freelancer’s group at the Boston Globe under the auspices of the National Writers Union, I was particularly pleased that we were a subsection of the UAW. It kind of brought everything full circle, and felt like I’d stayed true to my early friends.
Revisiting the songs that have made a home in my head