Freight Train (Cotten)

"Freight Train" is an American folk song written by Elizabeth Cotten (1895–1987) in the early 20th century, and popularized during the American folk revival and British skiffle period of the 1950s and 1960s.


Freight Train (WORD)
Freight Train (PDF)

By Cotten’s own account in the 1985 BBC series Down Home, she composed “Freight Train” as a teenager (sometime between 1906 and 1912), inspired by the sound of the trains rolling in on the tracks near her home in North Carolina. Cotten was a one-time nanny for folk singer Peggy Seeger, who took this song with her to England, where it became popular in folk music circles. Unfortunately, British songwriters Paul James and Fred Williams subsequently misappropriated it as their own composition and copyrighted it. Under their credit, it was then recorded by British skiffle singer Chas McDevitt who recorded the song in December 1956. Under advice from his manager, McDevitt then brought in folk-singer Nancy Whiskey and re-recorded the song with her doing the vocal, the result was a chart hit. McDevitt's version influenced many young skiffle groups of the day including one known as The Quarrymen. According to author Mark Lewisohn in The Complete Beatles Chronicles the young Quarrymen-Beatles performed it live from 1957 till at least 1959 if not later, with John Lennon on lead vocal. No recorded version is known to survive. Fortunately, under the advocacy of the influential Seeger family, the copyright was eventually restored to Cotten. Nevertheless, it remains miscredited in many sources. Mike Seeger recorded Elizabeth Cotten for Smithsonian Folkways in 1979.

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