Gilbert "Cisco" Houston was born in 1918 in Wilmington, Delaware. A year later his family moved to Eagle Rock, California, where Cisco attended school, though he never did graduate. He met Woody Guthrie in 1938 and they, along with actor Will Geer, toured the migrant camps up and down the state of California. Sometimes augmented by Burl Ives and other actors and singers, Cisco and his friends put on shows for the Spanish Refugee Relief.
In the early part of 1940, Cisco and Woody started singing together — at union halls, picket lines, political rallies, and night clubs. Moe Asch, of Folkway Records, asked Cisco, Woody, and Sonny Terry to record for him. Of that historic session Woody wrote, he " … cranked up his machinery and told us to fire away with everything we had. We yelled and whooped and beat and pounded … We tried hilltop and sunny mountain harmonies and wilder yells and whoops of the dead sea deserts and all of the swampy and buggy mud bottom sounds that we could make. We sung to the mossy trees and to the standing moon … "
Cisco was a man who identified himself completely with the common folk. He sang their songs and gave willingly of his talents to their causes. He traveled the length and breadth of this land, and through his recordings and concerts became known to folk singers and folk song lovers. In December, 1959, Cisco headed a group of American folksingers on a tour of India under the sponsorship of the State Department. In the summer of 1960 he sang at the Newport Folk Festival.
On August 9, 1960, Cisco found out that he had cancer and would soon die. He said, "If you know my situation which is a matter of weeks, or months at the outside, before the wheel runs off … Well nobody likes to run out of time. But it’s not nearly the tragedy of Hiroshima or the millions of people blown to hell in war, that could have been avoided. These are the real tragedies."
Cisco Houston died April 27, 1961, in San Bernardino, California.