Awe­some mu­sic from the ar­chives – El­iz­a­beth Cot­ten’s Freight Train

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TICKET STUBS - Donal Di­neen

The story of El­iz­a­beth Cot­ten is ev­ery bit as af­fect­ing as her re­mark­able mu­sic.

She was born into poverty in North Carolina in 1895. Her early at­tempts to teach her­self how to play her brother’s home­made banjo in­volved turn­ing the in­stru­ment up­side-down as she was left-handed. She de­vel­oped a dis­tinc­tive pick­ing tech­nique that be­came her sig­na­ture style.

By the time she was 10 she had mas­tered the guitar and by 12 she had built up a reper­toire of her own songs in­clud­ing her most fa­mous track, Freight Train.

Af­ter mar­ry­ing Frank Cot­ten aged 15, her life took a more re­li­gious turn and when the dea­cons of her church re­nounced her play­ing of “worldly mu­sic” she set her guitar aside for nearly 40 years.

In 1945 she was selling dolls in a depart­ment store in Washington DC when she found a lost child and re­turned her to her mother. The lady’s name was Ruth Craw­ford Seeger and the child was her daugh­ter Peggy. The two be­came fast friends and Cot­ten went to work for the fa­mous mu­si­col­o­gist fam­ily.

Still she kept her tal­ent hid­den from the Seegers un­til 1951 when a teenage Peggy dis­cov­ered her play­ing. In 1952, Mike Seeger be­gan record­ing her and in 1957 he pro­duced Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes.

It’s a trea­sure from start to fin­ish. The ten­der­ness in her voice is beau­ti­fully in tune with the soft­ness of her touch on the guitar. It ex­udes warmth and is blessed with the kind of sooth­ing power that great soul records pos­sess.

In 1960, at the age of 68, El­iz­a­beth Cot­ten per­formed in public for the first time. Her star shone brightly for the next 27 years. Some­times chance is a fine thing.

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