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 Sings American 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.