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Elizabeth Cotten: “Freight Train”

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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.

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Reading Music

The stories of the great bands and musicians are fascinating. Musicians as a group are brilliant, but often troubled. The combination of creativity and drama makes for great reading.

Here are some books to check out.

Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.


What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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