Honoring the woman who wrote ‘Freight Train’

Sep. 26, 2013 @ 06:07 PM

Art Menius called Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten “one of the great stories of American folk music.” Cotten, born in Carrboro, taught herself to play the guitar upside down and left handed, and wrote the song “Freight Train” when she was 12 years old, inspired by the trains that still cross the tracks through downtown Carrboro, Menius said.
Saturday, during the 2013 N.C. Folklife Festival, Menius, director of the ArtsCenter and a folk and traditional music writer, along with several public officials and UNC professors, will officially dedicate the historical marker honoring Cotten that sits next to those tracks.
About a year ago, Michael Hill from the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources invited him to submit an application for the marker, Menius said. The department approved it, and the town erected the sign next to the tracks.
Carrboro already has a bikeway that bears Cotten’s name. In 1989, the town held a two-day series of events in her honor.
Cotten “was one of the last living people who could play African-American guitar music that predated the blues,” Menius said. “Libba kept Africa-American folk guitar alive.”
Her song “Freight Train” became a standard during and after the folk music revival of the early 1960s. The song “became one of the basic pieces of guitar music that all the kids inspired by the folk revival who were inspired to play the guitar would learn,” Menius said.
Cotten was born Elizabeth Nevells, on Lloyd Street, in 1895, before Carrboro was incorporated. She went door-to-door seeking work, first at 75 cents and then at $1 a month. Her mother saved her wages and bought her a guitar. She began composing songs, including “Freight Train.”
At age 15 she married Frank Cotten, and they moved frequently among Chapel Hill, Washington, D.C., and New York. They had a daughter, and when the couple divorced, Cotten settled in Washington with her daughter.
There, her folk music career had a serendipitous turn. She was working in a department store in Washington and helped a woman find her lost daughter. That woman was Ruth Seeger, a music scholar and the second wife of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, father of Pete Seeger. Ruth Seeger offered Cotten a job in her home. One day, Ruth’s daughter Peggy and her brother Mike heard Cotten playing “Freight Train” on guitar. Mike Seeger later recorded Cotten, and Folkways Records released a recording of her performing her songs in 1957.
She also began making appearances, performing at the Newport Folk Festival and other events and venues. The recording dovetailed with a national resurgence of interest in folk and traditional music in places like Greenwich Village.
Her songs have been recorded by countless folk-inspired artists. “Shake Sugaree” became a staple of Grateful Dead concerts. In 1985, Cotten won a Grammy Award for “Elizabeth Cotten Live!” in the category of Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. She died in 1987, at age 95.
Cotten performed at one of the N.C. Folklife Festivals in the 1970s, said Joy Salyers, director of N.C. Folklife Institute. “This isn’t just ancient history. It’s really exciting for her to be honored.,” she said.
George Holt, who is now director of performing arts and film programs at the N.C. Museum of Art, organized the first N.C. Folk Life Festival in 1974, on the Duke University campus. The Durham Bicentennial Commission asked him to produce the festival again in 1976 to open the West Point on the Eno River park (this festival eventually became the Festival for the Eno).
Holt remembers Cotten’s performance for the 1974 festival. “Everybody who saw her and heard her fell in love with her,” Holt said. “She was the sweetest lady I’ve ever met, humble and kind, and a wonderful performer. … And everybody knows her song around the world. ‘Freight Train’ has become a classic American folk song.”

WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Unveiling of Elizabeth “Libba’ Cotten historical marker
WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Intersection of the Southern Rail line and Main Street, Carrboro
ADMISSION: Free. After the dedication, a free reception, with music by John Dee Holeman, will be held at The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St.