“Freight train, freight train, run so fast…”— words many may know from the likes of folk revival stars Peter, Paul and Mary or Peggy Seeger. But who was behind such powerful lyrics and haunting melodies? It was Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (nee Nevills)—an African-American woman from rural North Carolina who worked in the domestic arts for nearly five decades before becoming a Grammy Award-winning landmark figure in the twentieth century folk revival and serving as an inspiration for female musicians and musicians of color across the world.
Cotten grew up on an unpaved lane along a railroad spur coming from Chapel Hill—the train line segregating the local poor neighborhoods. The daughter of Louisa, a cook and midwife, and George, a moonshine-maker and iron miner, Libba described a musical childhood full of spirituals and dabbles on the banjo and guitar. Inspired by the rhythmic sounds of the freight line just outside her window, Libba began singing and songwriting at an early age. Yet, societal racism and oppression prevented Libba from focusing on her budding musical abilities. Like many children of color in the early twentieth century South, Libba had to enter the workforce at the young age of nine. By age eleven, she had saved enough of her wages—75 cents a month—to purchase her own guitar from a local dry goods store. Left-handed, she taught herself to play using an unconventional technique later known as “Cotton picking,” holding the guitar upside-down, fretting the instrument with her right hand and plucking with her left. It was as a young teen that Libba wrote the song “Freight Train,” speaking to the figurative and literal sense of freedom that the railroad provided for the African-American community in the South.
At age fifteen, Libba married Frank Cotten and settled into family life, and was unfortunately discouraged from playing guitar. She gave birth to a daughter, Lillie, and the Cottens moved to New York. Eventually, Libba filed for divorce and moved to Washington, DC to help Lillie, who then had a family of her own. Libba joined the staff at a local department store. One day, after safely returning a lost little girl to her mother at the store, Libba was offered a job to work in the grateful family’s home. Libba took them up on their offer, beginning a providential relationship with one of America’s most musical families—the Seegers. Charles Seeger was an ethnomusicologist, while his wife Ruth Crawford was a composer and pianist. The Seeger family was known for their interest in American folk music.
It took a few years for the Seegers to discover the immense talent they had working in their home, finally overhearing Libba play a family guitar. One of the children, Peggy, asked Libba to teach her some songs, including “Freight Train.” Eventually, the Seegers arranged small public concerts for Libba throughout the Washington area, and her career as a musician finally began. In 1958, Libba published her first album at the age of sixty-two: “Freight Train and other North Carolina Folk Songs.” By the 1960s, Libba was performing at major Folk Festivals throughout the United States, and her songs had become standard repertoire for other Folk Revival musicians. Recognition followed—Libba was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, a National Folk Burl Ives award, and at the age of 92 in 1985, she received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance.
Though Libba Cotten died in 1987, her legacy continues to grow. Her songs possess a rare authenticity and truth that feel especially relevant to our current social and political climate.
Director’s Note: I attended the 2019 Summer Institute at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts at Old Salem, NC, where the Hidden Town Project initiative aims to “research and reveal the history of a community of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans who once lived in Salem, North Carolina.” I was especially taken with a composition grounded in Cotten’s “Freight Train,” emphasizing the transcendental nature of her words and beautiful melodies.
For more on the Hidden Town Project, see: http://www.oldsalem.org/out-of-bounds-sounds-of-hidden-town/