Vintage Princeton: Cynthia Gooding (1924-1988)

By Jordan Hiller 

Today, it’s not uncommon for a female musician to be the sole talent driving a performance. Many female artists have achieved stardom without the support of back-up singers or traveling bands. In Cynthia Gooding’s time, however, a woman on stage with only her guitar for company, was an anomaly.

Gooding, who lived in Princeton and Kingston from 1964 until her death in 1988, grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. In the 1930s, at the start of her teenage years, this midwestern girl moved to Mexico City, where her love of music came to fruition.

Discovering her voice with the traditional songs of Mexico, Gooding set out to pursue a singer/songwriter career in New York City, where she quickly fell in love with the blues. Gooding appreciated everything about the genre; its instruments, the overall sound that characterized the music, as well as its cultural significance. She looked to Josh White, the famed African American guitarist and songwriter, known also as “Pinewood Tom,” to guide her study of the art form.

When Gooding found that she didn’t have a blues voice, she channeled the raw emotional commitment of a blues singer into her interpretations of old European songs, which she felt provided a similar emotional drive. Through a long-standing series of performances at several clubs in New York City, she developed a small following of fans. By the late 1940s, her talent had gained the attention of many, including several in the record industry.

After marrying Hasan Ozbekhan from Istanbul, Turkey, Gooding recorded her first album for Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records. Many of the tracks were Turkish songs she had learned from her husband. During the next twenty years, Gooding would record a dozen albums for Elektra and other record labels.

While touring the country, taking her two daughters with her after her divorce from Ozbekhan, she picked up a knack for broadcasting and became the host of two popular shows on the NYC radio station, WBAI, Cynthia and Sensible and Cynthia’s Choice. She often interviewed famous popular musicians of the day, including Bob Dylan, and she carried her tape recorder into the streets to capture sound bites for her shows.

When she settled in Spain in 1962, her tape recorder was with her as she traveled the country, gathering the sounds of the culture. In 1964, she returned to the United States and made her home in Princeton. She continued to write songs and a two-year tour with the National Humanities Series allowed her to spread her love of culture to the rest of the country.

A major interpreter of folk songs from around the world in both their original language and in translation, Cynthia Gooding is remembered locally for inviting young musicians into her home, which was frequented by visitors from around the world.

To hear her online, visit: www.last.fm/music/Cynthia+Gooding where her interpretations of songs such as “Tres Moricas-anda diciendo,” “Jalisco,” “Greensleeves,” and “I Know Where I’m Going,” can be heard.