The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Monday, May 20, 2024 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

The story of Elizabeth Cotten, the 'Freight Train' picker

lifestyle-libba-cotten-carrboro.png

Photos courtesy of Makayla Key and North Carolina Collections.

Before Elizabeth Cotten was a pioneer of folk music, she taught herself how to play her brother's banjo when she was 8 years old.

She fretted the guitar strings with her right hand, picking the bass strings with her left fingers and the treble strings with her thumb. This technique created a unique sound and became known as "Cotten style."

Cotten was born and raised on Lloyd Street, now a part of Carrboro, in 1893. Carrboro as it is now known was not fully incorporated until 1911. 

She wrote one of her most popular songs, "Freight Train" at the age of 11 or 12 about the section of North Carolina Railroad that she could hear and see from her Lloyd Street home. 

But, her song isn't one of love for her town; it's one of escape. 

"It was about jumping the freight trains because there was no way to get out," Glenn Hinson, an associate professor of folklore and anthropology at UNC who studies music, said.

Hinson said that Cotten grew up during a period of rich artistic wealth in Orange County's Black community and that instrument playing accompanied by oral poetry was a common creative expression for women of her time. 

"There was, of course, a constant effort to create places of joy to express resilience, which very much felt a part of that community," Hinson said. "At the same time, they were living with a constant specter of both white violence and, even more so, white repression."

In "Shake Sugaree," which is likened to a traditional children's folk song, Cotten sings downhearted lyrics with a bright voice: 

"Everything I've got is done and pawned." 

20009_pf0023_0001 (1).jpeg

Elizabeth Cotten holding her guitar, Larry Ellis on the left. Photo from Mike Seeger Collection. (PF-20009/23)

'Freight train, freight train, run so fast'

The Town of Carrboro proclaimed Jan. 5 as a day to celebrate Cotten in 2022. 

She was posthumously inducted into the North Carolina Musical Hall of Fame in 2019. She bears a number of awards and accolades from folk music and arts organizations alike. She won a Grammy for "Elizabeth Cotten Live!" in 1985 and was recognized as a "living treasure" by the Smithsonian Institution the year prior. Cotten died in 1987.

A marker honoring her in downtown Carrboro says, "Libba Cotten composed, recorded “Freight Train” (1958). Key figure, 1960s folk revival. Born and raised on Lloyd Street."

Down the road from Lloyd Street, a mural of Cotten sits right at the Chapel Hill-Carrboro line on North Merritt Mill Road, as does a bikeway bearing her name  — all by the railroad that she sings of in "Freight Train."

This Carrboro, however, was not the one that Cotten knew.

She worked at the Alberta Cotton Mill — a textile mill in the space now known as Carr Mill Mall, named after white supremacist Julian Carr.

The last known lynching in Orange County happened when she was 5 years old.

Black residents of the area worked at the mill or in service jobs at the University, earning less than $5 a week. 

"You can easily presume that the 11-year-old working, cleaning the household, cleaning the dishes, emptying the slop buckets of a working class white family who were working at the cotton mills — you can pretty much know that her presence was at every turn dehumanized," Hinson said.

alicephoto.jpeg

Elizabeth Cotten (right) and Bessie Jones (left) at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1969. From the Alice Gerrard Collection #20006, pf0076_0003.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

'Please don't tell what train I'm on'

By 1943, Cotten stopped playing, picking and singing and moved to Washington, D.C.

"When folks moved up the road, the first place in the up-the-road journey was always Washington, D.C., because Richmond was still the South," Hinson said

Cotten likely only earned pennies more than she would in Carrboro, but Hinson said that there was a more embracing community with larger Black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. He said women who were musically skilled during that time tended to play less in public settings once they married.

One day while working in Lansburgh’s Department Store, she encountered a young Peggy Seeger roaming around. She returned her to her mother and later began working in the folk-famous Seeger family home.

During the time she worked for the family, Mike Seeger recorded a number of Cotten's songs and released them through Smithsonian Folkways recordings. UNC's Wilson Library holds a large collection of Seeger's recordings, which span years and artistic variety — from Doc Watson to Mississippi John Hurt to Cotten herself.

Cotten only began playing and performing for others after Seeger's release of her music.

The Seeger family gave Cotten the nickname "Libba" — perhaps a loving nickname for a longtime nanny, in their eyes. But, music history scholars say she did not like it. 

Despite this, multiple awards and honors have been given to her under the name "Libba." Carrboro's municipal government even remembers her with that name.

20009_pf0018_0003-768x946.jpeg

Elizabeth Cotten performing. Photo by Steve Kruger in Baltimore, MD, 1972. From the Mike Seeger collection #20009, pf0018_0003.

 

'They won't know what route I'm going'

Scott Nurkin, a local artist and UNC alumnus, installed the mural of Cotten in 2020 which bears the name Elizabeth— but it isn't the first public art homage he has helped make to native North Carolinian musicians in their hometowns.  

"She liked Elizabeth Cotten, so I've always been keen to mention that and that's why it's on anything that has to do with my mural," he said.

Nurkin created the North Carolina Musician Murals project, which displays musicians on murals in their hometowns across the state. From John Coltrane in Hamlet to Thelonious Monk in Rocky Mount and Betty Davis in Durham, Nurkin has created a trail of musical history in the state that transcends jazz, folk, rock and soul genres. 

Cotten's late popularity was partially due to phenomenon in the '60s of white artists rediscovering already popular and successful Black artists, Nurkin said

Many of the musicians that Nurkin has made murals of like Coltrane, Monk and Cotten gained ground once they left North Carolina and went north.

"They left here young, and much of what happened musically for them happened elsewhere, happened in the North," journalist Kirk Ross said. "So reflect on that and let's make sure that we have a community here where somebody doesn't feel like they needed to get out of here in order to to live a better life."

'Freight train, freight train, run so fast'

In a 1966 taped interview with Mike Seeger — who grew up in Cotten's care — Cotten recounts her life, music, her first guitar and banjo.Cotten bought that first guitar from a shop in Chapel Hill for $3.75. She named it Stella.

"And that guitar, the lost child at Lansburgh’s store, is what made me what I am today — a 'Freight Train' picker," she said "That’s the truth."

@wslivingston_

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com


Walker Livingston

Walker Livingston is the 2024 enterprise managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer city & state editor and assistant city & state editor. Walker is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and American studies, with a minor in data science.