THE WOMAN WHO PLAYED UPSIDE DOWN
The Seeger household was full of instruments. Guitar. Banjo. Fiddle. Peggy Seeger played guitar, while brother Mike drew earthy sounds from the banjo. Sometimes half-brother Pete dropped in and got everybody singing. Yet it was the Seeger's maid whose song would be sung by Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Beatles...
You may not know of Elizabeth Cotten but you know the song she wrote -- at age 11. It's a simple song. Three chords, then a bluesy bridge. Words as if from a grade school primer, yet tinged with longing to steal away, to someplace "they won't know where I have gone." "Freight Train" was written with hope, hidden in sin, then released to become, like its composer, an American original. Played upside down.
I saw Elizabeth Cotten in 1982. She was 89. There she sat, a grey-haired great-grandmother in a sweater and shawl, finger-picking her Martin. But something was wrong with this picture. She was playing left-handed, but her guitar was strung for a right-hand player. You had to watch to believe it. So watch.
She was born in 1893, the grandaughter of slaves. The Nevills household in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was also full of instruments and Elizabeth began playing her brother's banjo -- upside down -- at age seven. She taught herself guitar and bought one a few years later, a $4 Stella she paid for by cleaning, chopping wood, hauling water. "From that day on," she said, "nobody had no peace in that house." She began to write songs. The first was about a train.
"We used to walk the trestle and put our ear to the track and listen for the train. . . We'd take straight pins, lay them on the railroad track and make little alphabets out of them. We'd know just about the time when the train was either coming or going, and the train would run over the pins and mash them together, stick them right together, and we'd have a little box of alphabets of pins. . . We used to sing about trains. That was the beginning of me writing 'Freight Train,' right about then. That was a long time ago."
Being black in North Carolina made any child dream of stealing away -- "please don't tell what train I'm on..." She left school at 13 to help her mother cook and clean. At 17, she married Frank Cotten, and they lived up and down the East Coast, following work. She soon joined a fundamentalist church whose deacon convinced her to stop playing "worldly songs." She learned hymns, then set aside the guitar for 25 years. "I declare,” she later said, “I don’t see where there’s so much sin in it."
In the 1940s, when their only daughter married, Elizabeth and Frank Cotten divorced. She moved to Washington D.C. to be near her new granddaughter. One day, while she was working in a department store, a little girl wandered into the doll displays, lost. Elizabeth helped the girl find her mother. Ruth Seeger told Elizabeth that if she ever needed a job...
The Seegers did not know their maid played guitar until they caught her one day. She apologized but soon they were sharing songs. In the mid-50s, Peggy, starting a folk career in England, sang "Freight Train." It became a hit, sung by every skiffle band including the Quarrymen, John Lennon on vocals.
Meanwhile back in DC, Mike Seeger taped his maid picking in her bedroom. The folks at Smithsonian Folkways recognized the talent , and "Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes" came out in 1957. Three years later, she began her stage career. She was soon playing alongside young folkies and old bluesmen at the Newport Folk Festival.
For the next 25 years, Elizabeth Cotten toured America and Europe, charming audiences with her grace and stories. "I've been about everywhere," she said, "so many places I've forgotten I was there."
Only time could slow her, but it took its time. In 1984, she won a Grammy for "Elizabeth Cotten: Live." Two years later, she played at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, a 93-year-old woman picking for fans who had thought "Freight Train" was traditional. The following year, she died in her home in Syracuse. She is buried there, near the Elizabeth Cotten Grove. Her guitar is now in the Smithsonian.
When I'm dead, Lord, bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chelsea Street
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she goes rollin' by.