For well over half a century, the folk song “Freight Train” has been played countless times at festivals around the world. It’s been a staple of the repertoires of famous singers and guitarists ranging from Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary to Tommy Emmanual and Gary Clark Jr. It’s the song that acoustic guitarists learn to play when they graduate from simple strumming to intricate finger-style picking. It’s as familiar as a Southern meal of cornbread and collard greens — that sweet, delicate melody picked over alternating bass strings plucked with the thumb, followed by four simple but profound verses, all composed and written by a Black girl barely in her teens:

Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know what route I’m going.

When I’m dead and in my grave
No more good times here I crave
Place the stones at my head and feet
And tell them all that I’ve gone to sleep

When I die, Lord, bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chestnut Street
Then I can hear old Number Nine
As she comes rolling by

Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know what route I’m going

Elizabeth Cotten, one of the most innovative guitarists in American folk-music history, wrote “Freight Train” in the early 1900s, inspired by the railroad cars that rumbled by her home near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was born Elizabeth Nevills 130 years ago this year. Her mother, Louisa Price Nevills, was a midwife and housekeeper from the nearby town of Siler City in Chatham County; Elizabeth’s father, George Nevills, also from Chatham County, made liquor and worked in an iron mine. Elizabeth was about 9 years old when she began playing the guitar, and was already an accomplished musician by age 13, when she was forced, as many young Black women were in her time, to start making a living cleaning white people’s houses.

In an interview decades later, Cotten told musician and scholar Alice Gerrard about one of her employers: “I worked awfully hard there because she liked you to wash her floors and things on your knees. And she had plenty of floors for you to wash … had me crawlin’ on my knees savin’ her boards in her house.”

It wasn’t until 50 years later, when Cotten was in her 60s, that members of a prominent folk-music family in New England — whose house Cotten tended, whose kids she brought up — learned of her immense talent. Cotten was 65 and still cleaning houses for white people when, in 1958, she released her first album, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar (later renamed Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes). It included the famous train song that she’d composed as a teenager so many decades earlier.

Two years before Cotten’s version of ”Freight Train” came out, though, the folksinger Peggy Seeger, whose family Cotten worked for, had taken the song to England, where she enthusiastically introduced it to musicians who played in the British folk-music style known as skiffle. Scottish skiffle musician Chas McDevitt not only recorded “Freight Train,” but he gave himself and his manager sole songwriting credits. It reached No. 5 on the U.K. singles chart in 1957, and that year, McDvitt’s skiffle group, fronted by singer Nancy Whiskey, performed “Freight Train” on The Ed Sullivan Show in America.

Around the same time, The Beatles, then known as The Quarrymen, regularly performed “Freight Train” during their earliest club gigs. Other musicians also recorded the song, including American singer Rusty Draper, who scored a Top 10 U.S. country hit with Cotten’s song.

For years, Cotten received neither songwriting credit nor royalties for “Freight Train” — it took a later lawsuit for her to be granted just one-third credit. Cotten was in her late 70s when she finally retired from cleaning houses for white people in 1970. By then, “Freight Train” had become a folk standard, recorded by numerous artists, from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the British folk-pop duo Peter and Gordon.

Cotten began playing at folk festivals in the mid-1960s, but it would take another 20 years for her to be awarded, at age 91, with a Grammy and recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts — for music that she’d been creating for more than seven decades! For a hit song that numerous other artists had cashed in on and been rewarded handsomely. It wasn’t until last year — 2022 — that Cotten was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

White supremacists like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis don’t want students to learn this kind of history. They’d prefer to just talk about how “fortunate” this sweet old lady was to be recognized as “an American treasure.” They’d rather spin her story as one that somehow represents “achieving the American dream.” And it’s not just white supremacists like Ron DeSantis who have whitewashed this history — even the well-meaning white keepers of folk-music history have tended to sand down the edges of Cotten’s story, patting themselves on the back for recognizing this sweet old lady.

Make no mistake about it: Elizabeth Cotten did not achieve nor reap the benefits of any kind of “American dream.” And yet, what she contributed to American culture enriched a lot of other people, mostly white people. Her story is not a success story. It’s the story of how a Black woman who wrote an iconic American song was manipulated and used — and nevertheless, she persisted.

Listen to Joan Baez perform “Freight Train” in the early 1960s, followed by a performance of Gary Clark Jr. and Sheryl Crow performing it in 2014:


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