John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Remarkable Legacy of Elizabeth Cotten

“Freight Train” is an American anthem, written when she was just 11 years old.

By - Mar 16th, 2018 03:16 pm
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Elizabeth Cotten. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Elizabeth Cotten. Photo from the Library of Congress.

We all know the old saying that “Cotton is King” in the south. But Cotten with an “e” is the Queen. That would be Elizabeth Cotten, the aptly named daughter of the south who reigned over folk blues with a charm and inventiveness born of necessity. Not that there’s anything wrong with frivolity, but “Freight Train”, is anything but that: its every bit as useful and hard working as its title. It became an indispensable song, as everyone and their second cousin seemed to record it.

Born in 1897, Libba, as she was called, was self-taught. She must have been a good teacher — this song was written when she was just 11 years old. Had there been a teacher like me there, I would have intervened when this natural lefty flipped her brother’s banjo over to play it upside down and backwards. It’s hard to say if that would have kept her from creating the beautiful tunes she wrote, but I’m glad she wasn’t taught the “proper” way.

Playing chord shapes upside down is hard enough. Compounding the difficulty is this little technical detail: While your average finger picker keeps a steady bass rhythm with their thumb and picks out melodies on the high strings with fingers one and two (sometimes three), Libba worked in reverse. Counter intuitive doesn’t begin to describe it. Here I am with every advantage a right handed player has, and I’m still trying to get “Freight Train” together. It’ll probably never get to where I want it to be and without a doubt I’ll never achieve the fluid beauty her version has.

We can thank the Seeger family, which gave us three giants of traditional music, Pete, Mike and Peggy, for bringing this artist to light. Their parents hired Ms Cotten to work as a maid and care for their children. It was during this time she reconnected with music, taking up guitar once more and, with the help of some home recordings made by Mike, showing the world the odd invention that has come to be known as “Cotten picking.”

The song, inspired by the train that must have awakened 11-year-old Libba some nights, has some interesting lyrics:

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

When I’m dead and in my grave
No more good times here I crave
Place the stones at my head and feet
And tell them all I’ve gone to sleep

When I die, oh bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chestnut Street
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she comes rolling by

When I die, oh bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chestnut Street
Place the stones at my head and feet
And tell them all I’ve gone to sleep

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

© Elizabeth Cotten

I’ve been writing songs for a while. You’d think the mystery of where they come from would have evaporated by now, but it hasn’t. Where on earth did this come from? Young girls aren’t supposed be on such a familiar basis with death, even if they came up a little harder than some. Maybe you know someone around this age — if they’re imaginations are as funereal as this, there is reason to worry.

Once more, remind yourself this was written by an eleven year old girl on an upside down and backward guitar. Then we can double back to the absolute necessity of this song and others like it.

Entertainment 100 years ago had to be home-made. There was no radio, TV, or movies; all those things were off in the distant, media-cluttered future we live in. If you heard music at all it was in a church or school, or maybe in a tent when a traveling medicine show or revival set up shop. The upper classes had theater and opera, but further down the ladder homemade fun was still needed.  Music was made in small rooms in small houses, or out in fields, by regular — I hate to say it but I will — folks. And in the same way a home cooked meal beats a frozen pizza, folk music, not always perfect, was nonetheless quite tasty. And nutritious. Libba Cotten was a heck of a cook.

4 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Remarkable Legacy of Elizabeth Cotten”

  1. dave says:

    Great article John. That’s me. Upside down and backward. In everything else. Yeah, who knows where songs come from. Gotta be sitting in the right chair. But when you’re good every chair is the right one.

  2. Bill Sell says:

    I love her voice and my household, my work, my day dreaming stops when Elizabeth Cotten sings.

  3. Observer says:

    She was genius. Hi Bill Sell. It’s been over 45 years since the children’s co-op days, hasn’t it?

  4. For those who like the songs of the 1960’s Folk era, I’ll be doing my “Blowing in the Wind” tribute to this music at The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center Sunday March 25th at 2pm. Unfortunately I’m not doing Freight Train but if Iexpand the show to a full concert 2hours, that’s would be a great addition.
    David HB Drake

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