Shaffer: Elizabeth Cotten's 'Freight Train' celebrated in Carrboro

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comSeptember 22, 2013 

— Elizabeth Cotten was about 8, she took the hand-made guitar her brother hid under his bed and laid it flat in her lap, flipping it upside-down to play it lefty.

She picked the strings backward, her thumb playing the melody, her index finger on the bass strings.

And there on Lloyd Street, a little girl invented the style that would one day take her to Carnegie Hall — fingerpicking that was both solid and lyrical, as rhythmic as the rails.

She grew up hard, chopping wood and carrying water in 1901, before Carrboro had a name. She all but abandoned music for marriage and church, where her ragtime picking style raised eyebrows as worldly and sinful. By the time the world heard “Libba” Cotten, she had turned 60, taking to the stage in a grandmotherly cardigan over her turtleneck sweater.

Now, after countless guitar students have built their chops on her songbook, she gets a permanent landmark pointing out the street where she strummed her first chord – the first N.C. historical marker in Carrboro.

“Elizabeth Cotten’s life and career is a rock on which so much else is built,” wrote Art Menius, executive director of The Arts Center in Carrboro, “that it would be almost sinful if this marker were not erected in her honor.”

A quarter of a century past her death, Cotten is a household name only in a household of guitar players, and only if those players tend toward the folk-blues-Americana vein most popular among people old enough to remember the day Bob Dylan went electric. Dylan himself covered Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree.” Jerry Garcia dipped into her repertoire with “Oh Babe it Ain’t No Lie,” and according to legend, The Grateful Dead would visit the elderly Cotten to pay homage.

She thrived in the folk revival of the 1960s, discovered by crazy coincidence when folk music specialist Ruth Crawford Seeger lost her daughter Peggy in the Washington, D.C., department store where Cotten was working. The former Lloyd Street guitarist led the wandering daughter back to her mother, and way led on to way. While working as a babysitter for the Seeger family, Cotten casually picked up a guitar and played her way into the Newport Folk Festival. It’s the sort of thing that makes you believe in fate. Something, somewhere wanted Libba Cotten’s music heard.

She toured for decades, playing the most prestigious stages, making enough to quit domestic work, winning a Grammy at age 91. Durham-based singer-songwriter Alice Gerrard — once married to Mike Seeger, who recorded Cotten — recalls some of those travels, particularly her dry humor at a border-crossing after a show in Canada. A customs agent asked Cotten if she had anything to declare, and when she didn’t understand, the official asked her, “Did you buy anything?”

“Well,” Cotten told him, as Gerrard recalled it, “I bought a piece of pie. But it wasn’t very good.”

If you’ve heard Cotten play, you’ve heard “Freight Train,” her most famous song and the only piece cited on the historical marker. She wrote it at age 12. The lyrics give instructions on what to do when the singer dies: Bury me deep, tell them I’ve gone to sleep.

“Freight train, freight train, run so fast,” the lyrics go. “Please don’t tell which train I’m on. They won’t know what route I’ve gone.”

She wrote it along the tracks of Lloyd Street, which still exist. I walked them on Friday alongside a Norfolk Southern train parked there.

There’s a yoga studio facing those tracks now, a far cry from the scenery Cotten would have seen in the early 1900s when she wrote that lonesome song.

But I still like to think of a 12-year-old girl hearing the whistle from her yard, watching the train pass the house where she chopped wood, dreaming about the places it could take her. or (919) 829-4818

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