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