A memorable tune keeps rolling by

Sep. 28, 2013 @ 02:38 PM

For much of Thursday and Friday, I couldn’t get lyrics from the folk anthem “Freight Train” out of my head.

You know that feeling – a song connects to your brain for some reason, and it then loops continuously, interrupting other thoughts whether profound or banal and forcing you to mentally re-listen.

I blame my colleague Cliff Bellamy, whose desk is scant feet from mine, and “The State of Things” host Frank Stasio for this.

Bellamy wrote for Friday’s front page about the dedication, which occurred Saturday, of a historical marker honoring Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, a Carrboro native who figured heavily in the folk music revival of the 1950s and ’60s. Stasio discussed Cotten’s life and impact on his show Wednesday with Glenn Hinson, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of North Carolina At Chapel Hill.

Her best-known song was “Freight Train,” written, as Art Menius told Bellamy, when she was 12. Menius said she was, as Bellamy wrote, “inspired by the trains that still cross the tracks through downtown Carrboro.”

There is a haunting sadness to those lyrics, but they are an ode to the tremendous sense of place that southerners understand so well:

“When I die, Lorde, bury me deep
Way down on old Chestnut street
Then I can hear old Number 9
As she comes rolling by.”

A confession is in order, one that speaks to the takeover of indigenous folk music, much of it with African American roots, by white performers who led the folk revivial.

Until I looked up the lyrics Friday morning, I had forgotten, if I were ever aware, that Cotton’s original composition referred to “old Chestnut street,” – a street, by the way, that I can’t find on any current Carrboro map, so perhaps it was there for the meter. She grew up on Lloyd Street, near the tracks.

The lyrics running through my head are from the Peter, Paul and Mary version on their 1963 “In the Wind” album. They altered the lyrics in several places, and on that relevant line, they pegged it to Greenwich Village in New York, a center of the folk revival. In their version it was

“When I die please bury me deep

Down at the end of Bleecker Street.”

This is a big weekend for roots music in the area. The 16th annual Carrboro Music Festival began Saturday and continues today, in conjunction with the N. C. Folklife Festival. The dedication of the Elizabeth Cotton highway marker was part of that event.

And Raleigh has been awash in bluegrass music with the International Bluegrass Music Association’s convention and awards show in town. (Coincidentally for me, the show started as the World of Bluegrass in Owensboro, Ky., in the 1980s, and I was at the paper there for its last couple of years before it decamped to Louisville, then to Nashville. This is the first year in Raleigh).

I was growing up during the folk music revival, but confess to not being much of a fan in the early days. Only a couple of iconoclastic high-school classmates immediately took to the work of artists such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, but my fandom came later.

Over the years, I’ve come to truly appreciate the roots-music genres of folk, bluegrass and country – especially earlier country, with its raw honesty and introspective look at life’s hard knocks and challenges.

So it was especially rewarding to be reminded of the ties this area has to those traditions – artists too little recognized like Elizabeth Cotton high among them.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.