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Origins: Libba Cotten's Freight Train

DigiTrad:
FREIGHT TRAIN


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Dan Schatz 07 Mar 09 - 10:44 PM
Janie 07 Mar 09 - 11:02 PM
Q (Frank Staplin) 07 Mar 09 - 11:09 PM
GUEST,Peter Laban 08 Mar 09 - 06:15 AM
GUEST,Peter Laban 08 Mar 09 - 06:16 AM
Dan Schatz 08 Mar 09 - 11:48 AM
GUEST 26 Apr 15 - 07:27 AM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 27 Apr 15 - 04:00 PM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 27 Apr 15 - 04:03 PM
Richie 27 Apr 15 - 08:12 PM
Janie 27 Apr 15 - 10:40 PM
GUEST,Joseph Scott 28 Apr 15 - 07:38 PM
GUEST,.gargoyle 28 Apr 15 - 08:04 PM
RealOregonWoman 29 Apr 15 - 12:53 PM
Joe Offer 30 May 17 - 04:36 AM
Joe Offer 30 May 17 - 04:42 AM
voyager 30 May 17 - 11:04 AM
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Subject: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: Dan Schatz
Date: 07 Mar 09 - 10:44 PM

Lately "Freight Train," by Libba Cotten, is one of my son's favorite songs. I've known it all my life and sung it for at least the last twenty years, but never quite so often as in the last few weeks (after all, toddler's can be demanding that way).

It got me to wondering - what is the story behind the song? I know that Libba Cotten worked for the Seeger family in Chevy Chase, MD when Mike and Peggy were kids, and I'm told she wrote it at a very young age after she saw a train pass by. What I'm interested is the meaning behind the words.

Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Please don't tell them what train I'm on
So they won't know which way I've gone.

It's such a good song, such an easy, friendly melody that even those of us who sing it often don't think much about those words. There's teeth in these lyrics. Who is being looked for, and who's doing the looking and why?

She sings about "Chestnut Street" - is that a street in Carrboro, North Carolina, near Chapel Hill where she grew up?

What older roots might this song have - ideas that may have been in the tradition and that Ms. Cotten might have used when she made this song?

On an older thread, someone teasingly mentioned a fascinating story she once told about this song - but couldn't remember the details.

I completely accept the possibility that she may have just put those words in because they sounded good, and fit the tune she'd made up. That's common enough among songwriters. But it would be interesting to know if there's anything more to it than that.

Dan


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: Janie
Date: 07 Mar 09 - 11:02 PM

Dan,

I think she wrote Freight Train when she was about age 11. They lived next to the railroad tracks in Carrboro, but not on Chestnut St. Lloyd street is where I think they lived. The story I heard is that the song was inspired by the freight trains passing by and that her older brother Louis jumped a freight train to head north to look for work and a bit better chance in life.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 07 Mar 09 - 11:09 PM

Thread on Elizabeth Cotten, 31361:
Elizabeth Cotten"


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: GUEST,Peter Laban
Date: 08 Mar 09 - 06:15 AM

She talks about it herself both here and here


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: GUEST,Peter Laban
Date: 08 Mar 09 - 06:16 AM

sorry about that last one: here


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: Dan Schatz
Date: 08 Mar 09 - 11:48 AM

I saw that Libba Cotten thread too, and checked it out before posting this one, but it seems more about her biography.

Great videos (including Libba's banjo version of Georgie Buck) but ARGH - both times he gets halfway into the story about how she came to write it and doesn't finish. I was fascinated by the story she was telling to Pete Seeger on the Rainbow Quest video, but just as it seems that some glimmer of the actual meaning was about to come up, Pete says, "You'd better start the song," so she never finishes. (Maybe he'd heard the story before?) In the Aly Bain interview she doesn't say much about the words, or if she does it's edited out.

I'm interested in knowing more about her brother Louis. I'd never heard that before, and it sounds like it has a connection. The words seem to imply an element of not wanting to be found. DO we know anything more about his story?

Dan


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: GUEST
Date: 26 Apr 15 - 07:27 AM

I wondered if it referred to the underground railroad. Her grandparents had been slaves, and she might have picked up the odd reference to the routes - as mentioned in the song


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 27 Apr 15 - 04:00 PM

The presence of a similar song, collected in the 1910s, in Newman White's _American Negro Folk-Songs_ suggests that Cotten may have based her "Freight Train" on a song she heard.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 27 Apr 15 - 04:03 PM

It's on page 402.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: Richie
Date: 27 Apr 15 - 08:12 PM

Hi,

Clearly it's based on existing songs, which I call the "When I Die" songs. Here are some examples from two other sources:

1) WHEN I DIE- As printed by E.C. Perrow in 'Songs and Rhymes from the South,' The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 28, No. 108 (April 1915), p. 130.

(A. From East Tennessee; mountain whites; recitation of F. Le Tellier; 1907.)

When I die, don' bury me a tall
But soak my body in alcohol.

When I die, bury me deep
En put a quart u' licker at my head en feet.

When I die, don' bury me a tall
But take me down to Bowery Hall
Take off my coat en open my vest
En tell all the girls I'm gone to rest.

(B. From Mississippi; negros; MS. of Mr. Harrison; 1909)

When I die don't bury me at all
Preserve my bones in alcohol
Fold my arms across my breast
Natural born . . . gone to rest.

Natural born . . . don't have to work
Carry a recommedation on the tail of my shirt.

(C. From Mississippi; negros; MS. of W.G. Pitts; 1909)

When I die, bury me deep
Tell all the gamblers that I've gone to sleep
Put a pair of bones in my right hand
And I'll throw seven in the promised land.


2) Brown Collection: 466 Train . . . Run So Fast

From Blake B. Harrison, Trinity College student. December 5, 1919, with music. As in White ANFS 402 (without music).

1 Train, train, train, train, run so fast,

Couldn't see nothing but de trees go past.

Refrain: Don't tell mama where I'm gone.
Cause I'm on my way back home.

Richie


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: Janie
Date: 27 Apr 15 - 10:40 PM

Thanks, Richie. Would love to find some recordings of those songs.

In the too much attention to miniscule details department, seems pretty clear that the version A that Perrow printed should have been "at all" and not "a tall" Here in the south, and in the central Appalachians "at all" could sound like a tall (atauwl, aytauwl or attaul) but not likely "a tall" is accurate.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: GUEST,Joseph Scott
Date: 28 Apr 15 - 07:38 PM

Perrow's (A), (B), and (C) are similar to stuff in Newman White pp. 368-9.

Perrow's (B) is similar to part of "Casey Jones" as Furry Lewis did it, and to White p. 375.

To me Perrow's (C) is reminiscent of "You Shall," e.g. this from p. 135 of White (which points forward to so-called "talking blues"):
"The devil will grab at you and miss his man,
Then you slip right over into the promised land.
Eat chittlings."


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: GUEST,.gargoyle
Date: 28 Apr 15 - 08:04 PM

INTERESTING...

Ben Afflick and the acceptance, denial, acceptance of slave ownership ancestors....makes "big international news."

However, as reported in "Singout" the beloved American hero Mr. Seegar'$ wife Toshi came from a family of Virgina slave holders.

Sincerely,
Gargoyle

The same brush paints in both directions.


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Subject: RE: Folklore: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: RealOregonWoman
Date: 29 Apr 15 - 12:53 PM

If most modern Americans from families already here in the 1700's were to check their genealogy I believe that most would find a slave owner somewhere in their line. Of course it feels shameful now to a person of our modern culture, but those ancestors lived in a very different time/culture. This acknowledgement in no way makes slave owning okay for us now, but it was okay for them, at least within their own communities.

It isn't easy to read US history from earlier centuries and not feel shame when we realize what our direct predecessors did and thought was acceptable behavior. However that can be carried forward into the last century, even in things as seemingly innocent as movies include stereotypical (for the time) characters from other races and cultures.

In my own family, my great-great grandfather was hired to help remove Native Americans from their traditional lands to make room for the new white settlers. That isn't the same as slave owning, but it carries the same burden of shame for me.


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Subject: RE: Origins: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: Joe Offer
Date: 30 May 17 - 04:36 AM

Here's the Traditional Ballad Index entry on this song:

Freight Train

DESCRIPTION: "Freight train, freight train, run so fast/Please don't tell what train I'm on/So they won't know where I've gone." Rest of song gives singer's wishes for her burial "at the foot of old Chestnut Street."
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Cotten
EARLIEST DATE: 1952 (composed c. 1905?)
KEYWORDS: train burial death nonballad
FOUND IN: US(SE)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Cohen-LSRail, pp. 521-523, "Freight Train" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cohen/Seeger/Wood, p. 120, "Freight Train" (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 63, "Freight Train" (1 text)
DT, FRGHTRN

RECORDINGS:
Elizabeth Cotten, "Freight Train" (on Cotten01, ClassRR) (on Cotten03)
Pete Seeger, "Freight Train" (on PeteSeeger34)

NOTES: Though not folk in origin, it was so widely recorded in the Sixties that it did seem briefly to go into oral tradition, though I suspect it's nearly dead as a folk song by now.
The popularity of the song seems to have been due partly to its use as a fingerpicking exercise. It is ironic to note that Elizabeth Cotten herself was left-handed, but instead of playing a left-handed guitar, she played a right-handed guitar flipped 180 degrees (i.e. she had her left hand on the fretboard, but with the bass strings on top and the treble on the bottom). So effectively none of the people imitating her style are actually imitating her technique. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.5
File: CSW120

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2016 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.


And the Digital Tradition lyrics:

FREIGHT TRAIN
(Libba Cotton)

Freight train, freight train going so fast
Freight train, freight train going so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
So they won't know where I'm gone

Freight train, freight train, going round the bend
Freight train, freight train, gone again
One of these days, turn that train around
Go back to my home town

One more place I'd like to be
One more place I'd love to see
To watch those old Blue Ridge Mountain climb
While I ride old Number Nine

When I die please bury me deep
Down at the end of Chestnut Street
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she goes rolling by

Copyright Libba Cotton
@travel
filename[ FRGHTRN
RG
The Digital Tradition lyrics are almost the same as those at http://www.peterpaulandmary.com/music/f-03-10.htm:

FREIGHT TRAIN
Adapted & Arranged:Stookey/Mezzetti/Travers/Okun- Neworld Media Music Publishers-ASCAP

Chorus:
Freight train freight train goin' so fast
Freight train freight train goin' so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
So they won't know where I've gone.

Freight train, freight train, comin' round the bend
Freight train, freight train, gone again
One of these days turn that train around
Go back to my hometown.

 (Chorus)

One more place I'd like to be
One more place I'd love to see
To watch those old Blue Ridge Mountains climb
As I ride ol' Number Nine.

 (Chorus)

When I die please bury me deep
Down at the end of Bleecker Street
So I can hear ol' Number Nine
As she goes rollin' by.

 (Chorus)


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Subject: ADD Version: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: Joe Offer
Date: 30 May 17 - 04:42 AM

Here's a studio recording by Elizabeth Cotten: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8UN_6AUgCw


FREIGHT TRAIN
(Elizabeth Cotten)

Freight Train, Freight Train
Run so fast
Freight Train, Freight Train
Run so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
They won't know what route I'm going

When I'm dead and in my grave
No more good times here I crave
Place the stones at my head and feet
And tell them all that I'm gone to sleep

When I die Lord bury me deep
Way down on old Chestnut Street
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she comes rolling by

When I die Lord bury me deep
Way down on old Chestnut Street
Place the stones at my head and feet
And tell them all that I've gone to sleep

These lyrics are in the Old-Time String Band Songbook (Cohen-Seeger-Wood), Oak Publications 1964, 1975 (Page 120) and are an exact transcription of the Libba Cotten studio recording.

Live performance by Elizabeth Cotten: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUK8emiWabU


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Subject: RE: Origins: Libba Cotten's Freight Train
From: voyager
Date: 30 May 17 - 11:04 AM

WaPo story on Libba Cotten -

LIBBA COTTEN AT 88: THE CURIOUS HISTORY OF 'FREIGHT TRAIN'

My 1st guitar class at UCLA (circa 1968) was 150 students in an
auditorium-sized classroom playing Freight Train (under the guidance of
McCabes Guitar shop teacher Dave Zeitlin).

voyager


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