Wayne and Karen

Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train" ...The Incrediable Story

Elizabeth Cotten (Jan 5, 1893- June 29, 1987) 

Elizabeth began playing the banjo at the age of 8 where she learned to play banjo rolls.....and soon after bought her first Sears and Roebuck guitar for $3.75.  (She was left handed....so she played a right handed guitar upside down and backwards...and as any guitarist will tell you...this is no easy feat!!!).  By the age of 11 she wrote many songs including her most famous song...."Freight Train".


50 years later, at the age of 60, while working in a department store, Elizabeth helped a lost child looking for her mother.  This child was Penny Seeger, daughter of the famous musical family....The Seeger's.  Because of her gentle nature, the Seeger family hired her as a maid. 

The family soon discovered that Libba (as the children called her) knew how to play the guitar and was even a song writer.

(One story goes that the Seegers came home from tour and noticed that the 12 string had been moved and asked Libba about it...and she confessed to playing.... whereupon they discovered her talent).

Mike Seeger, brother of the Pete Seeger,  recorded her on Folkways Records and soon after she went on the folk music tour playing concerts with many of the big names of folk including Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee hooker etc etc.  She appeared at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival and Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. 

Freight Train became an international hit in 1957 with the Chas McDevitt band   who  appeared on Ed Sullivan around this time.  (note that on the recording the songwriting credits are given to "James-Williams...whoever they are?). 

It was also an even bigger hit here in the states with the Rusty Draper band. 

(Skiffle instruments included washboards, jugs, kazoos, cigar-box fiddles, musical saws, comb and paper etc etc etc)

(Did John Lennon's skiffle band "The Quarrymen",  play the tune?)

 In 1984 she won a Grammy for her LP, "Elizabeth Cotten Live".

Her signature alternating bass style became known as "cotten picking" which is known and played the world over.

Freight Train was first performed in the late 1940's (1950's?) ....50 years after it was written and only came to light because of a lost child in a department store!!!

You can go  onto Utube and see Elizabeth play many of her great songs.




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