In the early 1900s in a small town called Carrboro in North Carolina, an 11-year-old girl, known to her family as Lil Sis, listened from her bedroom window to the cargo trains pulling in and out of a nearby station.
Borrowing her brother’s banjo and turning it upside down to accommodate her left-handedness, she stayed up late and composed a song called Freight Train, with the bittersweet lyric “Please don’t tell what train I’m on, they won’t know what route I’m going.”
Decades later, owing to an extraordinary twist of fate, Freight Train would become one of the most important songs in a revolutionary musical movement, helping to launch the careers of artists like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and many more.
Its composer, who came to be known as Elizabeth Cotten, will be honoured with an Early Influence Award this year by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lil Sis picked the name ‘Elizabeth’ for herself on her first day of school. She spent every spare moment playing music on borrowed instruments, finally buying her own guitar at 13, having left school and started working as a maid to save up the money.
She composed songs prolifically in her own unique style, continuing to play her guitar upside down without altering the tuning.
By age 15 she had married a man called Frank Cotten, and at 17 she had a daughter, Lillie. Although she continued to play in church occasionally, she eventually set music aside to focus on domestic life.
Elizabeth did not return to music until she was in her mid 60s, and she may never have done if not for a chance encounter with one of the most prestigious musical families in America.
One day, while selling dolls in a department store in Washington DC, she came across a lost child and returned her to her mother. That child turned out to be Peggy Seeger, daughter of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and pioneering ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, and half-sister of Pete Seeger, who would grow up to become one of the most famous folk singers of his generation.
Ruth needed a new housekeeper to cook and clean for the children, and she offered the job to Elizabeth. The Seeger family nicknamed her Libba, and had no idea of her musical talents until Peggy, by then a teenager, discovered her playing one of the family’s guitars.
“I walked into the kitchen and I saw Libba playing the guitar that was hanging on the wall. And she was playing Freight Train,” she later recalled. “Then she started trotting out songs. She knew a lot of songs. We would have been happy to do the cooking and cleaning if she would just play!”
Peggy’s brother Mike, also a musician and a budding folklorist, asked Libba if he could record her. Her debut album Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes, was released on the Folkways record label in 1958, when she was 62.
Nearly 50 years after she first picked up an instrument, Elizabeth began to play and compose again. She performed at major events with Mike Seeger, such as the Newport Folk Festival, alongside some of the biggest names on the folk and blues scene; artists like Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker.
She became an important figure in the folk revival of the ’60s, continuing to release music on Folkways Records throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Other artists sought to emulate her stark, intimate sound. Freight Train was a particular favourite among many of the era’s most popular acts, including Peter Paul and Mary, Jerry Garcia and Joan Baez, all of whom added the song to their repertoires.
Rooted in traditional bluegrass with notes of ragtime and church music, Cotten’s unique two-finger playing style, which became known as Cotten-picking, made her music stand out instantly, and still does. There is an authentic warmth and simplicity to her playing, singing and songwriting.
Having stayed out of sight for so long, Elizabeth became firmly established as a key figure in traditional American music. In 1984 she was honoured with an American Heritage Fellowship, and the following year she won a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. In 1987, at the age of 94, she passed away.
Although the song is over 100 years old, Freight Train is still covered and reinterpreted by contemporary artists around the world. Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Cotten’s dream of escaping mundanity to seek out a new life continues to resonate.
Deb Grant is a radio host and Big Issue jazz critic
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