Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Friday Night Concert: “Freight Train”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 25, 2011

Elizabeth Cotten (1895-1987) learned to play her older brother’s banjo at age seven, and soon moved on to the guitar. With no formal instruction, she taught herself to play left-handed, on a right-handed guitar strung for a right-handed player. She essentially played the guitar upside-down, plucking the strings with her left thumb and forefinger.

When she was about eleven or twelve, she wrote what would become her best-known work, “Freight Train.” In this interview, recorded two years before her death, she describes the genesis of the song:

I laid in bed at night and hear it stewing on the track, trying to come in. It said, choo-choo-chukachukachukachuka, and I’d go to sleep hearing that, the rest of the night. I guess that gave me a mind to write something about a freight train.

When she grew up, though, she put music aside and worked in a variety of jobs. In the 1950s, a chance encounter in a Washington, D.C. department store with Ruth Crawford Seeger led to her being hired as a domestic by the Seeger family. The Seegers, a fiercely musical family, quickly recognized Cotten’s musical talents, which led her — forty years after she’d mostly abandoned performing — to record for the then-burgeoning folk music market. She toured and performed frequently through the 1960s and 1970s, making regular appearances well into her ninth decade.

“Freight Train,” with its intricate melody, was an immediate hit among folk musicians (including this early, frenetic British skiffle version, turned into an outlaw ballad), and was covered by many other artists including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and the ’80s alternative band Opal. It’s a great favorite among amateurs, as well, including this young performer who’s about the same age as Elizabeth Cotten was when she composed the song. “Freight Train” is, in fact, such a great melody, even this Duane Eddy abomination can’t quite kill it. For my money, the simplest version of the song, played by Cotten herself on a single, acoustic guitar, remains the gold standard.

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