I started playing “Freight Train” as my regular encore piece in the 1980s, after realizing that I hadn’t heard anyone do it in about fifteen years. Everybody had quit playing it because it was so overdone – like the Yogi Berra line* – so I had it to myself, which was great. Nowadays, there are probably some young folk-blues fans who have never even heard it – which in terms of the popular culture of my youth is sort of like not having heard “Stairway to Heaven,” except that I don’t envy them.
I probably heard “Freight Train” for the first time by Peter, Paul and Mary – which would mean I heard it on one of my little sister’s records, and dismissed it accordingly, along with “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Of course, I learned to play it anyway, because everybody who played fingerpicking guitar in those days learned “Freight Train.” And I’m sure I at least knew Elizabeth Cotten’s name and the basic story of her emergence on the folk scene, which is one of the odder artifacts of the revival:
Cotten was from North Carolina, and had learned to play guitar there as a girl. She was left-handed, so worked out her own way to play upside-down, using her index finger to play an alternating bass and playing the melody with her index finger. (Since most old-time fingerstyle players used only thumb and index finger, this was not all that different from the way other people played, though it meant she couldn’t use a strong thumb to drive the bass for a dance beat.)
The curious part of the story was that she got a job as maid and babysitter for Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, and played music sometimes for their children, including Mike and Peggy. (Pete was an older half-brother, from Charles Seeger’s previous family.) Mike recorded her and introduced “Freight Train” to the rest of the folk scene, and by the early 1960s Cotten was performing at concerts and festivals, and recording albums for the Folkways label. She introduced several other songs to the standard repertoire, including “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” “Shake Sugaree,” and an instrumental called “Wilson Rag,” which was one of the first pieces Dave Van Ronk taught me.
All of which is interesting enough, but “Freight Train” was by far her best-known song – indeed, so well known that I considered it trite and overdone. Then I heard Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry do it, on the same Fantasy double-album blues anthology where I first heard Van Ronk sing “Cocaine Blues” (That also may have been my first taste of the Reverend Gary Davis and Tom Rush, and certainly was where I first heard the Holy Modal Rounders.) They had a bunch of verses I’d never heard before, and I recently realized that my favorite went back to Clara Smith’s “Freight Train Blues”:
I asked the brakeman, let me ride the blinds,
I asked the brakeman, please let me ride the blinds.
The brakeman said, “Clara, you know this train ain’t mine.”
Like a lot of male, guitar-playing blues fans of my generation, I didn’t pay much attention to the “blues queens” of the 1920s, with the exception of Bessie Smith, who I heard by way of Louis Armstrong and jazz, so I didn’t realize the extent to which the recordings of Clara Smith and Ida Cox were major sources for rural blues musicians in the 1920s. I never listened to Elizabeth Cotten either, because her high, wavering soprano didn’t appeal to me. Honestly, one of the reasons I liked Brownie and Sonny’s version of “Freight Train” was that it fitted my notion of a masculine freight-hopping life, while I thought of Cotten’s version (not to mention PP&M’s) as relatively wimpy. Which is to say, I had a lot to learn…
…and still do, but at least I came around on “Freight Train.”
* Berra famously said of a St. Louis Restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”