Libba Cotten: Engineered “Freight Train”

January 5 was the birthday of folk and blues singer Libba Cotten (Elizabeth Nevills, 1893-1987).

Cotten’s best known song is “Freight Train”, off her 1958 Folkways album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar , a.k.a. Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes and (originally) Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes. It became a standard among folksingers over the next decade. The most famous performers to have it in their repertoire was the Beatles, from their early days as a Liverpool skiffle group known as The Quarrymen.

By an amazing stroke of luck, Cotten was an amateur performer who just happened to work as a domestic for the Seeger Family. The songs that became her debut album were recorded by Mike Seeger (Pete’s brother) in the family’s house. She had taught her self to play guitar and banjo in her youth in her native North Carolina, and developed a repertoire of rags, blues numbers, dance tunes, and ballads. The fact that she was left handed caused her to develop a unique style of playing that became known as “Cotten Picking”. At 17, she married, and soon thereafter abandoned music in order to work and raise a family. She was in her 60s when she began her professional career. After her discovery by the Seeger’s she played at all the major folk festivals. She also released two subsequent albums, Shake Sugaree (1967) and When I’m Gone (1979). She was 94 at the time of her death.

For more on show business history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.