Elizabeth Cotten – Freight Train

Feminism is an ideology which puts patriarchy at its core. Patriarchy is when socially, politically and economically, men are in authority. Thus they are heads of families, government and business. Women are subordinate. Patriarchy keeps things that way.

Elizabeth Cotten (1893 or 1895-1997) may be an unlikely feminist hero.

As a little girl, she enjoyed playing the guitar. A lefty, it never occurred to her to restring the guitar for a southpaw when turning the guitar over. Consequently, she developed a unique and impressive upside down style. Playing the folk blues style, which features an alternating bass line and syncopated melody and chord notes… well, Cotten played this complicated method in reverse! (Just like the old saying, that Ginger Rogers was a better dancer than her partner, Fred Astaire, since Rogers did the same moves backwards). And back to Cotten, as any guitarist knows, this Cotten-picking style has a technical complexity belied by its apparent instrumental simplicity.

But Cotten, from North Carolina, spend most of her adult life as a maid, not playing guitar at all. Cleaning house for others would fit to the “T” feminist interpretations of subjugation, even if back in the day, such assessments were not common. Too, given Cotten’s race, her low position carries an added dimension of discrimination.

With the amazing coincidence movie plots hang on (or perhaps for a Christian such as Cotton), an answer to prayer, she was “discovered” by über-folkie family, the Seegers, which included Pete. Seeger composed Where Have All The Flowers Gone. Oddly and hypocritically (?), this civil rights activist family hired African-American Cotten to look after their kids and home!

Thankfully for us, Cotten remembered she used to play guitar. The providence of being in the Seeger household got her on the stage for many performances. She became a big part of the folk revival of the early 1960s. She continued to play into her last days.

Freight Train is her most famous song and is timeless, sounding as if it has always existed. It has been covered and/or performed by many artists including Peter, Paul and Mary, Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan. The song was allegedly composed by Cotten when she was around 11-13 years old.


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