This tune is a folk standard, and if you’ve ever been to Mommy and Me, you probably heard it there. It’s been recorded by folk singers approximately a thousand times. Jerry Garcia and David Grisman do an okay reggae version on their children’s album, but nothing can touch Elizabeth Cotten’s original recording. Her scratchy singing voice is maybe not to everyone’s taste, but her guitar playing is devastating. There’s a whole universe of ragtime syncopation and bluesy string bends and rock solid funk in there. Cotten had already lived a long life when she started recording, and you can hear it in her music.
Cotten started playing banjo at seven. When she was eleven, she bought her own guitar, with money she earned as a domestic worker. At age eleven. She taught herself to play intricate fingerstyle ragtime. This is no small feat to begin with. Now consider that Cotten was a lefty playing a regular right-handed guitar. Her solution was to hold the instrument upside down and backwards, which required her to invent her own chord fingerings and picking style. She wrote "Freight Train" in her early teens, but she didn’t get to record it for many years. Instead, it was a hit in 1956 for (the delightfully named) Nancy Whiskey and the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Band, in keeping with the long tradition of white musicians profiting from black musicians’ creativity. Nancy Whiskey and Chas McDevitt are singing different lyrics, which are lame, but they add whistling, which is pretty cool. Their version inspired another skiffle band called the Quarrymen to start performing “Freight Train” too. The Quarrymen later became somewhat better known after they changed their name to the Beatles.
Anyway, Cotten got married and had a daughter at age 17, and stopped playing guitar for about 40 years. In her 60s, she worked as a housekeeper for Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, the father and stepmother of Pete. Being around such a musical family inspired Cotten to pick up guitar again, and she started making recordings with Mike Seeger. (One of them features vocals by her great-granddaughter.) Cotten’s recordings found an immediate audience among the folk revivalists, and Cotten toured and recorded for the rest of her life—she even won a Grammy. You can see plenty of her performances on YouTube. Her voice gets pretty ragged, but you’re not going to hear Joan Baez play guitar with that much soul. If you yourself are a guitarist who’s curious about Cotten’s playing style, you can see her hands most clearly here. And for a really problematic experience, you can cringe while watching Pete Seeger interview his half-siblings’ nanny.
You can learn more about Elizabeth Cotten here:
About the Curator - Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab (https://www.musedlab.org), Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza (https://musedlab.org/groovepizza). In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses (https://soundfly.com/courses/unlocking-the-emotional-power-of-chords). He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog (http://www.ethanhein.com), and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.