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Elizabeth Cotten: “Freight Train”

Ragtime, perhaps because of the popularity of Scott Joplin, is associated with the piano. There also is a school of ragtime guitar, however. Elizabeth Cotten was one of its best known adherents. Other famous players are Blind Blake and Blind Willie McTell.

According to this bio, in the late 1940s Cotten migrated from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Washington, D.C. (Other bios outline stops in between.) She took a job in a department store and, one day, returned a lost girl to her mother. That good deed had profound ramifications: The parents were the Seegers, who ended up hiring Cotten. They both were musicologists. Even more importantly, the lost girl’s stepbrother was Pete. This happy coincidence enabled Cotten, who early in life had shown talent–she wrote Freight Train when she was 11 years old–to become a musician full time.

Here are Washington Blues and I’m Going Away and the familiar Going Down the Road Feeling Bad. This tune is labeled Vastopol/Vestapol; another nice one is Buck Dance. Finally, considering the history, is seems right to end with Cotten as a guest on Seeger’s Rainbow Quest television program. There is a nice interview in which Cotten elaborates the story of how she got hired by the Seegers. The two then play the pretty Wilson Rag.