Hard, Ain’t It Hard (Woody and Cisco)

This was one of the many songs Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston recorded together, with Woody typically singing lead. My mother was good about buying me records, and among the first I persuaded her to get were the Woody and Cisco albums issued in the Archive of Folk Music series, a budget series mostly made up of old Woody archive of folkStinson recordings, from which I also got the Sonny Terry, Memphis Slim, Pete Seeger, Josh White, Leadbelly, Jack Elliott, and Champion Jack Dupree LPs.  The crediting often had little to do with who was singing lead on them — the Sonny Terry, I later learned, was an album called Chain Gang, with Woody in charge–and the Woody and Cisco albums both had songs with both of them, so I had to check to see which this was on. It was Woody’s, which may well have been the first LP of his I ever owned, and he’s the voice I hear in my head, but the verses I sing are from Cisco’s songbook.

Those guys were kind of like my imaginary friends, and I was far from alone: when I met Bill Morrissey many years later, we could harmonize on all the Woody and Cisco songs, and that was also the repertoire Bob Dylan and Jim Kweskin sang when they did gigs together in the early 1960s. In the new millennium, it seems to have become fashionable to refer to Harry Smith’s anthology as the Bible of the folk revival, but in breadth of influence that set never came close to Woody and Cisco.

Most of this material — Woody and Cisco knocking out old songs they both knew — is now available on Smithsonian/Folkwawoody and ciscoys, sounding better than ever, and I wish it was getting more attention. These days Woody seems to mostly be appreciated for his songwriting, and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about his recordings of old-time country music. Of course he was a great songwriter, but what changed my life was his singing and playing — not just guitar, but harmonica, mandolin, and fiddle — and the way he and Cisco worked together.