One of the pleasures of playing on the street with Rob was that I had a second voice on the choruses of my favorite Woody Guthrie – Cisco Houston duets. I’d spent the previous couple of years learning blues and other stuff that lent itself to fingerstyle guitar, but I never lost my taste for the Woody/Cisco sound, and it had even become a matter of principle for me. I felt like a lot of the blues revivalists I liked had started out with Woody, Cisco, and Pete Seeger, but abandoned that music when they got into blues, and I understood the temptation but didn’t want to give in to it.
For one thing, I really like Woody Guthrie’s music — his guitar playing, his harmonica playing, his singing, even his fiddling — and he had good taste in songs. In a slightly alternate reality, if he hadn’t succumbed to Huntington’s disease, it is easy to imagine him at Newport in the 1960s jamming with other folk revival discoveries from the Southwest like Mance Lipscomb, who had a similarly broad repertoire and similar experience playing a wide range of regional blues and dance tunes.
For another thing, this was the music I started on, and it continues to feel natural in ways some of the styles I picked up later never will. I’m not saying I’m better at it (honestly, I could never make a flatpick behave the way I wanted) or that it’s better suited to a kid from Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I’ve been playing it since I was seven or eight years old, and it’s part of me.
For a third, people always liked it. I might think of it as less sophisticated, or less complex, or more hokey and folky than the blues and ragtime I was picking up from Van Ronk and afterwards, but whenever I played something like “Columbus Stockade,” there were a few people who reacted like, “OK, this I really like!” And not always the people I expected.
Plus, in a lot of moods, I’m one of those people myself. I like Jelly Roll Morton and Ornette Coleman, or Charley Poole and Merle Haggard, or Pablo Casals and Aretha Franklin for different reasons and in different moods, and I’m glad to be able to listen to all of them. So, as a matter of principle, I didn’t want the fact that I’d learned to play “Maple Leaf Rag” to mean I stopped playing “Columbus Stockade.”
Besides all of which, for most folk/roots musicians of roughly my generation this was a common language. Bill Morrissey and I used to sing these songs together and talked about doing some gigs with this repertoire, and I never asked Paul Geremia or Dave Van Ronk if they knew “Columbus Stockade,” but I’m sure they did, because we all did. Whatever our later musical journeys, this was where pretty much all of us started, and it remained a good foundation and a style we could all sing together.
Which brings me by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to the beginning of this post, and the pleasure of singing on the streets with a good partner, which I still get now and then, and which always makes me think of Woody and Cisco.
(If you haven’t read Jim Longhi’s book, Woody, Cisco, and Me, I recommend it enthusiastically and without reservation — to me, it is the ultimate evocation of those two men and what made them so special, including but by no means limited to the music.)