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How Elizabeth Cotten’s music fueled the folk revival

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    How Elizabeth Cotten’s music fueled the folk revival NPR

Left-handed, Elizabeth Cotten turned the guitar so the bass strings were at the bottom, therefore “backwards.” She used her thumb to play the melody and her fingers for the low notes. John Cohen, courtesy Deborah Bell, New York/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

As a Black woman playing fingerstyle guitar, Yasmin Williams has been hailed as a “hero for a new generation.” She says she often felt like an anomaly- until she discovered a YouTube video of Elizabeth Cotten.

“I knew about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other kind of more rock and roll or electric players and singers and I loved them too, but just seeing an acoustic guitarist was amazing.” But when Williams tried to learn more about Cotten she discovered that most accounts of her life skipped over the hardships she overcame, focusing only on her late-career success.

Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, N.C. around 1893. Her father worked in the mines. Her mother cleaned houses. When Cotten’s brother was off at work, Sis Nevills, as she was called then, snuck into his room and took his guitar off the wall. Since she was left-handed, she turned it so the bass strings were at the bottom, therefore “backwards.” She used her thumb to play the melody and her fingers for the low notes.

When Cotten’s brother discovered her playing, he tried to offer advice, “‘You got it upside down, turn it around or change the strings.” She tried but liked the sound better the other way, so she kept with it, practicing for hours on end. After the third grade, Cotten left school to work. Making 75 cents a month cleaning houses and cooking, she saved up to buy her guitar. Cotten picked up new songs after hearing them only once or twice, and wrote her songs, including “Freight Train.”

Cotten was married in her mid-teens and had a daughter. A pastor discouraged her from playing “wordly” songs. But by the mid-1940s she had left the church and her marriage and she was living with family in Washington, D.C. when she applied for a job at a local department store, where she was hired to sell dolls. When a girl wandered away, Cotten saved the day by reuniting her with her mother. She didn’t know it, but that woman was composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, wife of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, and mother to budding folk musicians Mike and Peggy, and stepson Pete- who was well on his way to stardom as a member of the Weavers.

The Seegers hired Cotten, whom they called “Libba,” to cook and clean and look after the kids. They were surprised to discover that she was a musician, too, says Peggy Seeger. “When I was about 15 I walked into the kitchen and I saw her playing the guitar that was hanging on the wall. And she was playing ‘Freight Train.’ Then she started trotting out songs. She knew a lot of songs. We would have been happy to do the cooking and cleaning if she would just play!”

In 1956, 21-year-old Peggy took Cotten’s “Freight Train” to England. “Skiffle was kind of at its height,” Seeger recalls. “I arrived in March of 1956, and I was the flavor of the month because I was female, I was American, I was young, I played guitar and banjo, and I was footloose and fancy-free. So, I just sang wherever anyone asked me to sing and I even sang in places they didn’t ask me to sing.”

“Freight Train,” which Seeger also recorded, sounded traditional, even timeless. She says it was picked up very quickly by other artists. “I taught it to Nancy Whiskey and Charles McDevitt, and when I went to China in 1957, they were playing it around the coffee houses.”

The “folk process,” a term coined by Charles Seeger, holds that performers can add something new to old songs (altered lyrics, different arrangements) that transforms them into distinct compositions. A common practice among musicians of the era, the Chas McDevitt group released their version of “Freight Train” in 1957, which they copyrighted under the names “Fred James and Paul Williams,” pseudonyms for McDevitt and his manager, Bill Varley.

Legal theorist Kevin J. Greene says copyright law often disadvantaged the Black artists whose music was the foundation of the folk revival. “A lot of times these artists, not being well educated, not being well resourced, not knowing how to navigate the copyright system, didn’t realize that if they performed their work publicly anybody could fix those lyrics and claim copyright.”

The song shot up to No. 5 on the UK charts, then Rusty Draper took it to the Top 10 in the U.S. where promotional materials described the song as “a new hit tailor-made for him.” When she learned of the infringement Cotten assigned rights to a music publisher who initiated legal action.

According to her family, an out-of-court settlement gave Cotten only a third of the songwriting credit to be shared with McDevitt and Varley. Though the royalty terms were never made public, at the time it was customary for music publishers to take a 50% cut, likely leaving Cotten with only a fraction of the song’s true worth. Meanwhile, other artists continued releasing “Freight Train,” including Peter, Paul and Mary, who rerouted the song to New York City in 1963. With a lyrical shout-out to Bleecker Street, they credited the song to Paul Stookey, Mary Travers, Elena Mezzetti and producer Milton Okun.

Mike Seeger started coming by Cotten’s house to tape her performing “Freight Train” and other songs. He produced her debut album Negro Folksongs and Other Tunes (later renamed Folksongs with Instrumentals and Guitar) for release on the Folkways label in 1958. However, efforts to reclaim “Freight Train” were confounded by the appearance of the Chas McDevitt Group on The Ed Sullivan Show. The song became such a hit, that McDevitt even opened a coffee bar in Soho called Freight Train.

Cotten and Mike Seeger maintained a close lifelong friendship, and she continued to record and tour with him over the years, and appear at high-profile events such as the Newport Folk Festival. When she wasn’t cleaning houses or performing, Cotten shared a modest room with her great-grandchildren, says Brenda Evans.

“Every night she would play to us and one of those evenings she liked the little tune she was playing and granny said to us, ‘Well, kids, can you all think of some words to go to this song?’ So all of us just started piping in, and that’s how ‘Shake Sugaree’ came about.”

12-year-old Evans also sang on the recording, which was copyrighted and released in 1966. Fred Neil nevertheless claimed a co-credit for his retitled arrangement, and in 1969 Pat Boone’s renamed version identifies Neil as the only songwriter.

Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Joan Baez were among the artists who performed Cotten’s songs live, but they didn’t always announce them as covers.

Culture critic Daphne A. Brooks says generations of Black women musicians were denied the spotlight, and the world was denied their art. Cotten didn’t leave domestic work until she was nearly 80 years old, at about the same time she received the 1972 Burl Ives Award for her contributions to folk music. It wasn’t until 1984 that Cotten was recognized as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. The following year, she won her first and only Grammy, for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.

Since her 1987 death, Cotten has been recognized by North Carolina and New York, where she lived in her final years. This year the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is inducting Cotten as an “early influence.” Like other Black women guitarists, such as Etta Baker, Algia Mae Hinton, and Memphis Minnie, her influence has reverberated through the generations, permeating every genre of music. “It’s in the soil of our sonic landscape,” says Brooks.

“The brilliance of Elizabeth Cotten’s music is the music of a Black girl’s lifeworld, a Black girl prodigy that wrote songs, who composed music and innovated her own unique style of playing,” adds Brooks, noting that “it’s a specific manifestation of her own North Carolina Jim Crow era Black girl desires, hopes, dreams, and struggles.”

Singer-songwriter Laura Veirs, who published a children’s book, Libba, in 2018 credits the Seegers for exposing Cotten’s music to the world, but says “it was her determination that gave the world her voice.” Looking back, Peggy Seeger agrees, “She was her music. When she started to play, she wasn’t ‘the help.'”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The song “Freight Train” was written more than a century ago. It became a staple of the 1960s folk revival, and it’s now considered a timeless classic. Less well known is the song’s composer, Elizabeth Cotten, who’s one of this year’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. Reporter Allyson McCabe explains why.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: As a Black woman playing fingerstyle guitar, Yasmin Williams says she often felt like an anomaly until she discovered a YouTube video of Elizabeth Cotten.

YASMIN WILLIAMS: I knew about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other kind of more rock ‘n’ roll or electric players and singers, and I love them, too. But just seeing an acoustic guitarist was amazing, and it was something I needed to see to think that I could have a career in music and play how I want to play and write the songs that I want to write. Her story is one of pain but also one of triumph.

MCCABE: Cotten often tried to tell that story, but she wasn’t always heard. Born in North Carolina around 1893, her father worked in the mines. Her mother cleaned houses. Sis Nevills, as she was known, snuck her brother’s guitar off the wall. Since she was left handed, she played it backwards, using her thumb for the melody and her fingers for the bass notes. After the third grade, Cotten left school to work. Making $0.75 a month as a housekeeper, she saved up to buy her own guitar. She played melodies by ear and wrote her own songs, including one she called “Freight Train.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “FREIGHT TRAIN”)

ELIZABETH COTTEN: (Singing) 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 on.

MCCABE: Cotten was married at 15. With a daughter, church and work, there wasn’t much time for playing. But by the mid 1940s, she had left the church and her marriage and her daughter was grown. She was living with family in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COTTEN: I applied at a department store for a job. I worked at Lansburgh’s department store. They gave me a job – sell dolls.

MCCABE: When a girl wandered away from her mother, Cotten saved the day. She didn’t know it, but that girl was Peggy Seeger, daughter of the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. They hired Cotten to cook and clean and look after their kids, Mike and Peggy, who were budding musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COTTEN: So Peggy kept her guitar in the kitchen hanging. So when Mrs. Seeger would go in to start her music, I’d get the guitar and go in the dining room, close the door so that I couldn’t be heard.

MCCABE: Then one day, 15-year-old Peggy Seeger walked into the kitchen.

PEGGY SEEGER: And I saw her playing the guitar and she was playing “Freight Train.” And then she started trotting out songs. She knew a lot of songs.

MCCABE: A few years later, Peggy Seeger took “Freight Train” to England.

SEEGER: Skiffle kind of was at its height in 1956, and I was the flavor of the month because I was female, I was American, I was young, I played guitar and banjo. And I was footloose and fancy free. So I just sang wherever anybody asked me to sing, and I even sang in places they didn’t ask me to sing.

MCCABE: Seeger also recorded “Freight Train” on an album called “The Origins Of Skiffle.” The liner notes describe the song as being learned and collected from Cotten but not necessarily written by her.

SEEGER: And “Freight Train” was picked up very quickly. I taught it to Nancy Whiskey and Charles McDevitt. Then when I went to China in 1957, they were playing it around the coffeehouses.

MCCABE: The folk process, a term coined by Charles Seeger, holds that performers can add something new to old songs – altered lyrics, different arrangements. In 1957, the Chas McDevitt group released “Freight Train” and copyrighted it under the names Paul James and Fred Williams, pseudonyms for Mr. McDevitt and his manager. The song shot up to number five on the U.K. charts. Then Rusty Draper took it to the U.S., along with the false credit. Mike Seeger started coming by Cotten’s house, taping her performing “Freight Train” and other songs for her 1958 debut album. But in 1963, Peter, Paul and Mary rerouted “Freight Train” to New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “FREIGHT TRAIN”)

PETER, PAUL AND MARY: (Singing) When I die, please bury me deep down at the end of Bleecker Street.

MCCABE: Legal scholar Kevin J. Greene says copyright law, which requires that works be fixed in a tangible medium like sheet music or recording, often disadvantaged artists whose music was the foundation of the folk revival.

KEVIN J GREENE: And a lot of times, these artists not being well educated, not being well resourced, not knowing how to navigate the copyright system, didn’t realize that if they performed their work publicly…

MCCABE: Or someone else did…

GREENE: …Anybody could fix those lyrics and claim copyright in them. And that happened quite frequently historically to Black artists.

MCCABE: Cotten never received full credit for “Freight Train,” but the value of her repertoire was well known in folk circles. Brenda Evans was 12 when she sang this song, which she helped to write along with Cotten’s other great grandkids in 1965.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SHAKE SUGAREE”)

BRENDA EVANS: (Singing) Have a little secret, I ain’t going to tell.

Every night, she would play to us. And one of those evenings, she liked a little tune that she was playing. And Granny said to us, well, kids, can y’all think of some words that go to this song? So all of us started just piping in, you know, and that’s how “Shake Sugaree” came about.

MCCABE: Even though “Shake Sugaree” was copyrighted, Fred Neil claimed a co-credit for his arrangement of the song, which came out in 1966. Pat Boone’s 1969 version identifies Neil as the only songwriter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “I’VE GOT A SECRET”)

PAT BOONE: (Singing) I’ve got a secret, I won’t tell. I’m going to go to heaven in a split pea shell.

MCCABE: Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead and Joan Baez all performed Cotten’s songs but didn’t always announce them as covers. Cultural critic Daphne A. Brooks says generations of Black women musicians were denied the spotlight.

DAPHNE A BROOKS: There’s genius artists from blues vocalists like Alberta Hunter to the Harlem Renaissance polymath Zora Neale Hurston, who were forced to take jobs as domestic workers. Because there was no other work available for them as Black women.

MCCABE: Cotten didn’t leave domestic work until she was nearly 80 years old. She won her first and only Grammy in her 90s. This year, she’s being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the early influence category.

BROOKS: Early recognition is a useful way of being able to call attention to the long historical arc of modern music culture. On the other hand, it doesn’t allow us to fully embrace the ways in which someone like Elizabeth Cotten’s music is in the soil of our sonic landscape.

MCCABE: Today, “Freight Train” is so well known that most aspiring fingerpickers learn or try to learn how to play it, says singer-songwriter Laura Veirs.

LAURA VEIRS: When I learned her song note for note, I was really amazed by the complexity of it.

MCCABE: Veirs credits the Seegers for exposing Cotten’s music to the world but says her story has often been told upside down and backwards.

VEIRS: They gave her a platform, but it was her determination that gave the world her voice.

MCCABE: Looking back, Peggy Seeger agrees.

SEEGER: She was her music. When she started to play, she wasn’t the help. She knew it.

MCCABE: For NPR News, I’m Allyson McCabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OH BABE, IT AIN’T NO LIE”)

COTTEN: (Singing) Oh, babe, it ain’t no lie. No, this life I’m living in, it ain’t no lie. Oh, babe, it ain’t no lie. Oh, babe, it ain’t no lie. Oh, babe, it ain’t no lie. No, this life I’m living is very high. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Written by: NPR

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