Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Elizabeth Cotten: Freight Train

North Carolina born Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (1895 - 1987) saved her wages as a child house-maid to buy her first guitar. Already self-taught on the banjo, the left-hander learned the guitar upside down (without restringing in the manner of Dick Dale) and in the process developed a characteristic picking style (later known as Cotten-picking). She would marry and raise a family and in the process stopped playing and writing songs. It'd be another 30 + years before she'd pick up the guitar again, to be discovered by Pete Seeger's parents
(the Seegers' were "a voraciously musical family") while working for them as a domestic. With their encouragement her musical career began. It'd be Pete's brother Mike who first recorded her.

Some sources claim Cotten wrote Freight Train at 11 years old in response to the train sound she heard from her bed at night. Eventually, the song would go on to become one of the best known and oft recorded songs in the American folk canon. This 1965 clip is from the television program Rainbow Quest, hosted by a recently un-blacklisted Pete Seeger (one of the heros of the House of Un-American Activities period). Cotten would've been 70 years old at the time. (She would continue to perform and record into her 80s.) Even though the show aired at the peak of the folk music revival, it ran on only seven stations and quickly ran out of money. Other guests included Johnny Cash and June Carter, Doc Watson, Odetta, Judy Collins, and Buffy Saint-Marie among others. Quite literally, in this case, the show was history in the making.

As for the song itself, it needs no other explanation. For it to be any more authentic or aching would not be humanly possible: Awe-inspiring.

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