Somewhere in the early 1980's, family friends took me to hear Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten in concert. She was in her nineties, and at the end of the concert, four generations of her family stood on stage with her. What I remember most about the concert was Cotten explaining why she played the guitar upside-down. She was left-handed, and completely self-taught. As a result, her finger-picking style was unlike anyone else's, as you can see in this video for "Freight Train," a song she wrote when she was twelve years old. You can read more about Cotten's life story, including how she was discovered by Pete and Peggy Seeger, the copyright issues involving "Freight Train" (I still don't get it how anyone can get away with copyrighting a song s/he didn't compose) and more in this article by L.L. Demerle called Remembering Elizabeth Cotten. You can listen to Cotten play "Freight Train" and watch her finger-picking style here:
Here are the chords:
For those of you who struggle with holding down two or more strings with one finger, remember these F chord alternatives.
I'll admit that I appreciate Cotten's creaky, sometimes off-key voice in small quantities. As with Bob Dylan's music, it's the song-writing and guitar-playing for which I keep coming back. Cotten's first album for Smithsonian Folkways, Freight Train and Other Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes, is a good album with which to to start. The production values are pretty good, and I enjoy hearing the squeaks of the guitar-strings. There's also Shake Sugaree which has the title track sung by Brenda Evans, Cotten's great-granddaughter (12 years old at the time of recording), and the Grammy award-winning Live!
At the Elizabeth Mitchell concert last Saturday, Mitchell and her band (including her young daughter Storey) lead "Freight Train" and had us call out different places to travel to by train. We went from Pittsburgh to Mars. You may listen to a sample by following the Mitchell link, then clicking on "Flower" followed by "Listen."