Elizabeth Cotten and "Freight Train"

art black voices elizabeth cotten folk music folk revival freight train history intellectual property music

If you're a Southerner and/or a fan of American folk music, you've probably heard the song "Freight Train" before.

Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
They won't know what route I'm going

Yet you still might not know the name Elizabeth Cotten, and that would be a damn shame.

Elizabeth Nevill Cotten was born in 1893 in North Carolina into a musical family. She was playing her brother's banjo by the age of 7. She had to drop out of school at age 9 to work, and by age 11, she had scraped up enough money to buy herself a guitar from Sears and Roebuck. She was a self-taught (and left-handed) guitarist, and she wrote "Freight Train" when she was a teenager, possibly as young as 12.

She was a nanny at one time to Peggy Seeger, the American folk singer, and during the American folk revival of the '50s and '60s, Peggy took the song with her to England, where American folk music was increasingly taking the country by storm. Two British songwriters named Paul James and Fred Williams then stole the song and copyrighted it as their own. While this is an especially egregious example, it's not rare at all. Lots of well-known white urban musicians made their names (not to mention their money) during the American folk revival by mining the creativity and talent of relatively unknown rural folk musicians, a huge proportion of which were African American. These musicians often continued living in relative obscurity and poverty, sometimes completely unaware of their influence on the contemporary music world. Few ever made money from their music or were ever able to work as musicians.

"Freight Train" was a huge hit for British skiffle singer Chas McDevitt in 1957, and it's been covered by the Quarrymen/Beatles; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Chet Atkins; and Odetta, just to name a few. The Seeger family and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary eventually helped get credit restored to Elizabeth Cotten, but your chances are really good of finding the song misattributed even today. (See, for instance, this biography of Chas McDevitt at allmusic.com.) That's why everybody's heard the song "Freight Train" but far fewer folks recognize the name of Elizabeth Cotten, even though she toured into her 80s and won a Grammy four years before her death in 1984.

She was a bloody genius and a national treasure, and we are lucky that she was able to perform her music and that it was recorded for us to hear today. If you don't know her playing, you should fix that right now.

Here's Elizabeth Cotten playing her composition "Freight Train." If you're not a musician, this fingerpicking style is absolutely unique due to her playing a right-handed guitar upside down. If you are a musician, she's tuned down a whole step here. I will try to find the credit for this clip and update later - I haven't tracked it down yet.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43-UUeCa6Jw&w=480&h=360]

She was also hilarious and a hell of a storyteller. Here's the story behind her song "Old Woman Keeps Telling Her Lies on Me."

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhQLxGmU4QA&w=608&h=360]

Here's an interview with her by fiddler Aly Bain in 1985. Her singing voice may reflect her age at this point, but her picking is still just absolutely phenomenal.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm5-WdB_aVE&w=480&h=360]

I don't think it's possible to overestimate her influence on American folk music. She was astonishing.

Sources

Ankeny, Jason. "Elizabeth Cotten." Allmusic. Accessed 13 Aug 2020.

Bain, Aly. Down Home, BBC, 1985.

Demerle, L.L. "Remembering Elizabeth Cotten." Eclectica Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1, October, 1996. Accessed 13 Aug 2020.

Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. Maya Angelou, foreword. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999.

 


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