I was an early convert to folk music back in the 1950s and one of the first songs I learned to play on my cheap Harmony guitar was Freight Train. Like so many folk songs I just assumed the author was long gone and long forgotten.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I discovered Elizabeth Cotton, the very old and very talented lady who on her cheap Sears & Roebuck guitar, wrote the folk classic, Freight Train.
Carter taught herself to play guitar at age eleven and went on to master it. Being left-handed she learned to play with a normally strung right-hand guitar turned upside down. This required her to play the base runs with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. As Mother Maybelle Carter is remembered for her unique “Carter scratch” method of playing, Elizabeth’s technique became known as “Cotton picking.”
For a number of years, Cotton was in the employ of the musical Seeger family, working as a domestic. It was the Seegers, especially Mike, who discovered her talents and got her involved in the folk music movement of the ’50s and ’60s. She went on to perform with such prominent artists as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and appear at such venues as the Newport Folk Festival.
In 1983 Cotton won the Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, for the album, Elizabeth Cotten Live.
Cotton passed in 1987 at the age of 94.