Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”

Elizabeth Cotten‘s “Freight Train” is one of the more moving examples of the Piedmont Blues, and a somewhat late entry into its early history. Cotten, born in 1893 in North Carolina, was a self-taught guitarist who when young began to write her own songs. She gave up guitar playing after she married and had children in the 1910s. Much later, in the early 1950s after she was divorced and living in the Washington D.C. area, Cotton was working in a department store when she helped a lost young child find her mother among the aisles; the child was Peggy Seeger, and her mother Ruth Crawford Seeger. Shortly thereafter the Seegers hired Cotten as a housemaid; at that point, Cotten picked up the guitar once more and learned it all over again from scratch.

She came to prominence thereafter with performances and a few recordings for Folkways Records; she died in Syracuse, New York, in 1987. Below, a late recording of “Freight Train,” which she wrote at the age of 11. In the liner notes to her first album, she said:

We used to watch the freight train. We knew the fireman and the brakeman … and the conductor, my mother used to launder for him. They’d let us ride in the engine … put us in one of the coaches while they were backing up and chang­ing … that was how I got my first train ride.

We used to walk the trestle and put our ear to the track and listen for the train to come. My brother, he’d wait for the train to get real close and then he’d hang down from one of the ties and swing back up after the train had passed over him.