Elizabeth Cotten Wrote “Freight Train” at 11, Won a Grammy at 90, and Changed American Music In-Between

When I first moved to North Car­oli­na, one of the first vis­its I made was to the lit­tle town of Car­rboro. There sits a plaque on East Main com­mem­o­rat­ing Eliz­a­beth “Lib­ba” Cot­ton: “Key Fig­ure. 1960s folk revival. Born and raised on Lloyd Street,” just west of Chapel Hill, in 1893. It’s an accu­rate-enough descrip­tion of Cotten’s impor­tance to 60s-era folk, but the lim­it­ed space on the sign elides a much rich­er sto­ry, with a typ­i­cal musi­cal theft and unusu­al late-life tri­umph.

The sign sits next to a retired train depot con­vert­ed into a restau­rant called The Sta­tion, which adver­tis­es two claims to fame—R.E.M. played their first show out­side of Geor­gia there in 1980, and Eliz­a­beth Cot­ten “was inspired to write her famous folk song, ‘Freight Train,’ in the ear­ly 1900s as a trib­ute to the trains that stopped in Car­rboro, which she could hear at night from the bed­room of her child­hood home.” The song became a stan­dard in Amer­i­can folk and British skif­fle.

“Freight Train” was cred­it­ed for years to two British song­writ­ers, who claimed it as their own in the mid-fifties. How­ev­er, not only did Cot­ten write the song, but she did so decades ear­li­er when she was only 11 or 12 years old. It first made its way to Eng­land by way of Peg­gy Seeger, who had heard it from her one­time nan­ny, Lib­ba, when she was young. “Freight Train” was then picked up by sev­er­al singers and groups, includ­ing The Quar­ry­men, the skif­fle band that would become The Bea­t­les.

Cot­ten “built her musi­cal lega­cy,” writes Smithsonian’s Folk­ways, “on a firm foun­da­tion of late 19th- and ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry African-Amer­i­can instru­men­tal tra­di­tions.” She had a keen grasp of her musi­cal roots, with her own inno­va­tions. A self-taught gui­tar and ban­jo play­er, she flipped the instru­ments over to play them left-hand­ed. She did not restring them, how­ev­er, but played them upside-down, devel­op­ing a cap­ti­vat­ing fin­ger­style tech­nique “that lat­er became wide­ly known as ‘Cot­ten style.’”

Per­suad­ed by her church to stop play­ing “world­ly music,” Cot­ten all but gave it up and moved to Wash­ing­ton, DC. There, she might have fad­ed into obscu­ri­ty, the sto­ry of “Freight Train” high­light­ing just one more injus­tice in a long his­to­ry of mis­ap­pro­pri­at­ed black Amer­i­can music. But the folk-singing Seeger fam­i­ly worked to secure her recog­ni­tion and relaunch her career.

Cot­ten first “land­ed entire­ly by acci­dent” with the Seegers after return­ing a young, lost Peg­gy to her moth­er Ruth at a Wash­ing­ton D.C. depart­ment store where Cot­ten had been work­ing. The fam­i­ly hired her on as help, and did not learn of her tal­ent until lat­er. After her song became famous, Mike Seeger record­ed Cot­ten singing “Freight Train” and a num­ber of oth­er tunes from “the wealth of her reper­toire” in 1957. He was even­tu­al­ly able to secure her the cred­it for the song.

Thanks to these record­ings, Cot­ten “found her­self giv­ing small con­certs in the homes of con­gress­men and sen­a­tors, includ­ing that of John F. Kennedy.” In 1958, Seeger record­ed her first album, made when she was six­ty-two, Eliz­a­beth Cot­ten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes. “This was one of the few authen­tic folk-music albums avail­able by the ear­ly 1960s,” notes Smith­son­ian, “and cer­tain­ly one of the most influ­en­tial.”

Cotten’s sto­ry (and her gui­tar play­ing) is rem­i­nis­cent of that of Mis­sis­sip­pi John Hurt, who left music for farm­ing in the late 20s, only to be redis­cov­ered in the ear­ly six­ties and go on to inspire the likes of fin­ger­style leg­ends John Fahey and Leo Kot­tke. But Cot­ten doesn’t get enough cred­it in pop­u­lar music for her influ­ence, despite writ­ing songs like “Freight Train,” “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” and “Shake Sug­a­ree,” cov­ered by The Grate­ful Dead, Bob Dylan, and a host of tra­di­tion­al folk artists.

Fans of folk and acoustic blues, how­ev­er, will like­ly know her name. She toured and per­formed to the end of her life, giv­ing her last con­cert in New York in 1987, just before her death at age 94. The record­ing indus­try gave Cot­ten her due as well. In 1984, when she was 90, she won a Gram­my in the cat­e­go­ry of “Best Eth­nic or Tra­di­tion­al Folk Record­ing.” Two years lat­er, she was nom­i­nat­ed again, but did not win.

The recog­ni­tion was a long time com­ing. In 1963, when Peter, Paul & Mary had a hit with their ver­sion of “Freight Train,” few peo­ple out­side of a small cir­cle knew any­thing about Eliz­a­beth Cot­ten. In 1965, The New York Times pub­lished an arti­cle about her head­lined “Domes­tic, 71, Sings Songs of Own Com­po­si­tion in ‘Vil­lage,’” as Nina Rena­ta Aron points out in a pro­file at Time­line.

But thanks to her own qui­et per­sis­tence and some famous bene­fac­tors, Eliz­a­beth Cot­ten is remem­bered not as a house­keep­er and nan­ny who hap­pened to write some songs, but as a Gram­my-win­ning folk leg­end and “key fig­ure” in both Amer­i­can and British musi­cal his­to­ry. In addi­tion to her Gram­my and oth­er awards, she received the Burl Ives Award in 1972 and was includ­ed in the com­pa­ny of Rosa Parks and Mar­i­an Ander­son in Bri­an Lanker’s book of por­traits I Dream a World: Black Women Who Changed Amer­i­ca.

In 1983, Syra­cuse, New York, where she spent her last years and now rests, named a park after her. And it may have tak­en them entire­ly too long to catch up to her lega­cy, but in 2013, the state of North Car­oli­na rec­og­nized one of its most influ­en­tial daugh­ters, putting up the His­tor­i­cal Mark­er sign in her hon­or.

In the videos here, see Cot­ten, in her spry, pro­lif­ic old age, play “Freight Train,” at the top, “Span­ish Flang Dang” and “A Jig,” fur­ther up, in 1969, and “Wash­ing­ton Blues” and “I’m Going Away,” above in 1965.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Rock Pio­neer Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe Wow Audi­ences With Her Gospel Gui­tar

Pete Seeger Teach­es You How to Play Gui­tar for Free in The Folksinger’s Gui­tar Guide (1955)

Down­load Images From Rad Amer­i­can Women A‑Z: A New Pic­ture Book on the His­to­ry of Fem­i­nism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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