OK, so I taught my first class at the "experimental school" this morning. I have sent the email to begin the Dungeons and Dragons class. I have even spent some time on that pesky RE curriculum. So now I am sitting down with a cup of coffee to spend a little time on the least of my sabbatical projects..."Burbania Folk".
You may recall what the plan is. I will find some folk songs (as defined by me), post a recording of me playing them, provide some supporting materials, and write a little essay about why I picked it. I was hoping to do 20. We'll be lucky if I get to 8. I am kicking this off with a song that has been a part of my life forever. Yep...it's Freight Train...
Now--in my biased opinion--this is one of the great American songs. The story of this song is one of the great tales in the history of American Folk. Trapped forever within it are some of the many streams that have followed us to this day. Racism, classism, and the challenge of maintaining a culture in the face of the constant push toward "progress" all make their contribution to the narrative. The song is old yet it is still relevant.
At the center of this story we find the author/composer Elizabeth Cotten. Born in 1893 and raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she wrote this song when she was 12 years old. A couple of years later she was asked by her church to put music aside to serve God with more intention (an interesting idea these days, particularly if you attend the uke-playing Eliot Church). She married a year later at the age of 15. After a divorce, she moved to Washington DC. There she worked a variety of jobs and would have been pretty much forgotten except for a strange coincidence that altered the course of music.
One day Cotten helped a mother find her missing child in the department store where she worked. The mom was the pianist Ruth Crawford Seeger, wife of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. Both of them were instrumental in the early years of the intentional "collecting" of folk songs. The missing child (thankfully found unharmed) was their daughter, Peggy. Later--along with her brothers Mike and Pete--Peggy would help to popularize traditional and acoustic music in North America and elsewhere.
Long story short Elizabeth (known as "Libba") moved in with the Seegers and worked for them as a "domestic" (caring for the kids and doing other household chores). One day, Peggy and Mike heard her playing music in the kitchen and the rest, as they say, is history. It should be noted, though, that this "discovery" (one could argue whether she was missing or "hidden" in the first place) occurred in the 1940's. However, she didn't get the rights to her song until 1957. This was not unusual. Many early folk artists had trouble getting paid for their work as their white (usually well-educated, usually well-meaning) "discoverers" frequently took the first cut.
Of course, when she wrote that song, Cotten didn't ever think she would get paid for playing. She composed for herself. That said, her style was innovative. She was left-handed and taught herself to play (as many left-handed people do) by turning the guitar "upside down", with the bass strings on the bottom and the high strings on top.. Later on Jimi Hendrix would do the same thing. However, unlike Hendrix (who usually played an electric guitar with a flatpick), Cotton played a fingerstyle eventually called "Cotten Picking". Many years after developing her technique, other fine younger guitarists would despair of capturing her sound.
I have always been in awe of this song and this woman. It is a song that my parents sang to me as I fell asleep. It is one that I sang to my children. As a kid, I loved it. I could see the train in my head. I could feel the wheels rolling along the tracks. Built into this song and tune is a desire, a yearning to escape to somewhere else. For Cotten, of course, there was the specter of segregation and continued racism as well. She came into this world in 1893! One cannot help but think of what experiences might have have informed her and her work.
For me there was just the pull and the promise (as there was also for her) of finally getting to see what is around the corner. Hopefully we will all get a peek in this life. If not, then maybe we will in death. Either way, it puts word and feeling to the dream of turning from the past to never look back. "Please don't tell them which train I am on"
We have sung this song in church a few times. Why wouldn't we? It is hard to imagine this as anything other than deeply spiritual and religious. It is a song of hope, after all. It is also a song of grace. It is a song of freedom, too. I hope you love it as much as I do.
How do you play it? By listening to the words and singing along. I will not give the lyrics to you because then you are stuck weening yourself off a piece of paper. I am doing you a favor that I wish had been done for me with numerous tunes. HOWEVER, I will give you the chords we use in the video above: C/G/C/E/F/C/G/C. Listen for the changes or watch the video below marked "Uke Tips". even if you don't play the ukulele, the chords are the same and I show where to place them. Most of you won't need to watch it unless you want to.
Finally? There is a video of Cotten herself, still crushing it. Honestly, you should check it out. Guitarists won't be able to even look at their instruments for the rest of the day.
Here is "Uke Tips". It was recorded in haste by me, but it works...I think... and covers the challenge of playing that pesky "E".
Here is Elizabeth Cotten. Check out her playing. It is phenomenal.