Rebecca Swain penned this review.
This is an entertaining account of three men’s adventures as mess-men in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. The Woody in the title is Woody Guthrie, the famous folksinger and labor organizer. Cisco is Cisco Houston, Woody’s organizing partner, who also sang and acted in Hollywood. The story is told by Jim Longhi, an Italian-American friend of theirs who went on to become a lawyer.
The book follows these men’s fortunes on three ships from 1943 through July 1944. It is a sentimental book (“my wonderful Woody; my beautiful Cisco,”) and a funny book (Jim’s effort to bake eighty loaves of bread results in his creation of a creature rather like the Blob.) Longhi’s writing style is informal. The book is an easy read, interesting, sometimes exciting, as when the weather is just right for submarines, or when the ship is actually torpedoed.
This account is a must for anyone interested in Woody Guthrie. Longhi presents the singer as friendly but somehow too self-controlled, as if he learned early in life not to let his emotions show. Guthrie is creative and artistic no matter what the circumstances. He decorates the menus he chalks on the mess-room blackboard with mermaids and flowers. He plays his music whenever he gets the chance, in union halls, on board ship, and even in Algeria, to Arab children. He writes new songs as he travels, and works on a novel.
Guthrie and Houston are both presented as heroic figures. Woody showed a blithe disregard for authority. Cisco was legally blind but figured out ways to keep this a secret so he could ship out with his friends. According to Longhi, they were always willing to risk their own safety to help others. They went down to one of their ship’s holds one night to sing to the soldiers bunking there when submarines were harassing the convoy the ship was travelling with. Being in the hold instead of on deck made death almost certain if the ship was hit by a torpedo, but Guthrie and Houston showed no fear. Longhi participated in this and other brave actions, but he makes it clear that he was terrified and his friends were cool and seemingly light-hearted.
The book contains some politics, but not much. This is not a political treatise or an attempt to convert anyone to socialism. It is also not a biography of Woody, Cisco, or Jim. It is a memoir of a special time in their lives when they were together fighting for a cause that none of them doubted was just.
(University of Illinois Press, 1997)