How Elizabeth Cotten's music fueled the folk revival Although inducted into the 2022 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, her contributions haven't always been properly acknowledged.

How Elizabeth Cotten's music fueled the folk revival

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The song "Freight Train" was written more than a century ago. It became a staple of the 1960s folk revival, and it's now considered a timeless classic. Less well known is the song's composer, Elizabeth Cotten, who's one of this year's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Reporter Allyson McCabe explains why.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: As a Black woman playing fingerstyle guitar, Yasmin Williams says she often felt like an anomaly until she discovered a YouTube video of Elizabeth Cotten.

YASMIN WILLIAMS: I knew about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other kind of more rock 'n' roll or electric players and singers, and I love them, too. But just seeing an acoustic guitarist was amazing, and it was something I needed to see to think that I could have a career in music and play how I want to play and write the songs that I want to write. Her story is one of pain but also one of triumph.

MCCABE: Cotten often tried to tell that story, but she wasn't always heard. Born in North Carolina around 1893, her father worked in the mines. Her mother cleaned houses. Sis Nevills, as she was known, snuck her brother's guitar off the wall. Since she was left handed, she played it backwards, using her thumb for the melody and her fingers for the bass notes. After the third grade, Cotten left school to work. Making $0.75 a month as a housekeeper, she saved up to buy her own guitar. She played melodies by ear and wrote her own songs, including one she called "Freight Train."


ELIZABETH COTTEN: (Singing) Freight train, freight train, run so fast. Freight train, freight train, run so fast. Please don't tell what train I'm on. They won't know what route I'm on.

MCCABE: Cotten was married at 15. With a daughter, church and work, there wasn't much time for playing. But by the mid 1940s, she had left the church and her marriage and her daughter was grown. She was living with family in Washington, D.C.


COTTEN: I applied at a department store for a job. I worked at Lansburgh's department store. They gave me a job - sell dolls.

MCCABE: When a girl wandered away from her mother, Cotten saved the day. She didn't know it, but that girl was Peggy Seeger, daughter of the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. They hired Cotten to cook and clean and look after their kids, Mike and Peggy, who were budding musicians.


COTTEN: So Peggy kept her guitar in the kitchen hanging. So when Mrs. Seeger would go in to start her music, I'd get the guitar and go in the dining room, close the door so that I couldn't be heard.

MCCABE: Then one day, 15-year-old Peggy Seeger walked into the kitchen.

PEGGY SEEGER: And I saw her playing the guitar and she was playing "Freight Train." And then she started trotting out songs. She knew a lot of songs.

MCCABE: A few years later, Peggy Seeger took "Freight Train" to England.

SEEGER: Skiffle kind of was at its height in 1956, and I was the flavor of the month because I was female, I was American, I was young, I played guitar and banjo. And I was footloose and fancy free. So I just sang wherever anybody asked me to sing, and I even sang in places they didn't ask me to sing.

MCCABE: Seeger also recorded "Freight Train" on an album called "The Origins Of Skiffle." The liner notes describe the song as being learned and collected from Cotten but not necessarily written by her.

SEEGER: And "Freight Train" was picked up very quickly. I taught it to Nancy Whiskey and Charles McDevitt. Then when I went to China in 1957, they were playing it around the coffeehouses.

MCCABE: The folk process, a term coined by Charles Seeger, holds that performers can add something new to old songs - altered lyrics, different arrangements. In 1957, the Chas McDevitt group released "Freight Train" and copyrighted it under the names Paul James and Fred Williams, pseudonyms for Mr. McDevitt and his manager. The song shot up to number five on the U.K. charts. Then Rusty Draper took it to the U.S., along with the false credit. Mike Seeger started coming by Cotten's house, taping her performing "Freight Train" and other songs for her 1958 debut album. But in 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary rerouted "Freight Train" to New York City.


PETER, PAUL AND MARY: (Singing) When I die, please bury me deep down at the end of Bleecker Street.

MCCABE: Legal scholar Kevin J. Greene says copyright law, which requires that works be fixed in a tangible medium like sheet music or recording, often disadvantaged artists whose music was the foundation of the folk revival.

KEVIN J GREENE: And a lot of times, these artists not being well educated, not being well resourced, not knowing how to navigate the copyright system, didn't realize that if they performed their work publicly...

MCCABE: Or someone else did...

GREENE: ...Anybody could fix those lyrics and claim copyright in them. And that happened quite frequently historically to Black artists.

MCCABE: Cotten never received full credit for "Freight Train," but the value of her repertoire was well known in folk circles. Brenda Evans was 12 when she sang this song, which she helped to write along with Cotten's other great grandkids in 1965.


BRENDA EVANS: (Singing) Have a little secret, I ain't going to tell.

Every night, she would play to us. And one of those evenings, she liked a little tune that she was playing. And Granny said to us, well, kids, can y'all think of some words that go to this song? So all of us started just piping in, you know, and that's how "Shake Sugaree" came about.

MCCABE: Even though "Shake Sugaree" was copyrighted, Fred Neil claimed a co-credit for his arrangement of the song, which came out in 1966. Pat Boone's 1969 version identifies Neil as the only songwriter.


PAT BOONE: (Singing) I've got a secret, I won't tell. I'm going to go to heaven in a split pea shell.

MCCABE: Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead and Joan Baez all performed Cotten's songs but didn't always announce them as covers. Cultural critic Daphne A. Brooks says generations of Black women musicians were denied the spotlight.

DAPHNE A BROOKS: There's genius artists from blues vocalists like Alberta Hunter to the Harlem Renaissance polymath Zora Neale Hurston, who were forced to take jobs as domestic workers. Because there was no other work available for them as Black women.

MCCABE: Cotten didn't leave domestic work until she was nearly 80 years old. She won her first and only Grammy in her 90s. This year, she's being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the early influence category.

BROOKS: Early recognition is a useful way of being able to call attention to the long historical arc of modern music culture. On the other hand, it doesn't allow us to fully embrace the ways in which someone like Elizabeth Cotten's music is in the soil of our sonic landscape.

MCCABE: Today, "Freight Train" is so well known that most aspiring fingerpickers learn or try to learn how to play it, says singer-songwriter Laura Veirs.

LAURA VEIRS: When I learned her song note for note, I was really amazed by the complexity of it.

MCCABE: Veirs credits the Seegers for exposing Cotten's music to the world but says her story has often been told upside down and backwards.

VEIRS: They gave her a platform, but it was her determination that gave the world her voice.

MCCABE: Looking back, Peggy Seeger agrees.

SEEGER: She was her music. When she started to play, she wasn't the help. She knew it.

MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.


COTTEN: (Singing) Oh, babe, it ain’t no lie. No, this life I'm living in, it ain't no lie. Oh, babe, it ain’t no lie. Oh, babe, it ain’t no lie. Oh, babe, it ain’t no lie. No, this life I’m living is very high.

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