Elizabeth Cotten and “Freight Train”

If you’re a Southerner and/or a fan of American folk music, you’ve probably heard the song “Freight Train” before.

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

Yet you still might not know the name Elizabeth Cotten, and that would be a damn shame.

Elizabeth Nevill Cotten was born in 1893 in North Carolina into a musical family. She was playing her brother’s banjo by the age of 7. She had to drop out of school at age 9 to work, and by age 11, she had scraped up enough money to buy herself a guitar from Sears and Roebuck. She was a self-taught (and left-handed) guitarist, and she wrote “Freight Train” when she was a teenager, possibly as young as 12.

She was a nanny at one time to Peggy Seeger, the American folk singer, and during the American folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s, Peggy took the song with her to England, where American folk music was increasingly taking the country by storm. Two British songwriters named Paul James and Fred Williams then stole the song and copyrighted it as their own. While this is an especially egregious example, it’s not rare at all. Lots of well-known white urban musicians made their names (not to mention their money) during the American folk revival by mining the creativity and talent of relatively unknown rural folk musicians, a huge proportion of which were African American. These musicians often continued living in relative obscurity and poverty, sometimes completely unaware of their influence on the contemporary music world. Few ever made money from their music or were ever able to work as musicians.

“Freight Train” was a huge hit for British skiffle singer Chas McDevitt in 1957, and it’s been covered by the Quarrymen/Beatles; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Chet Atkins; and Odetta, just to name a few. The Seeger family and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary eventually helped get credit restored to Elizabeth Cotten, but your chances are really good of finding the song misattributed even today. (See, for instance, this biography of Chas McDevitt at allmusic.com.) That’s why everybody’s heard the song “Freight Train” but far fewer folks recognize the name of Elizabeth Cotten, even though she toured into her 80s and won a Grammy four years before her death in 1984.

She was a bloody genius and a national treasure, and we are lucky that she was able to perform her music and that it was recorded for us to hear today. If you don’t know her playing, you should fix that right now.

Here’s Elizabeth Cotten playing her composition “Freight Train.” If you’re not a musician, this fingerpicking style is absolutely unique due to her playing a right-handed guitar upside down. If you are a musician, she’s tuned down a whole step here. I will try to find the credit for this clip and update later – I haven’t tracked it down yet.

She was also hilarious and a hell of a storyteller. Here’s the story behind her song “Old Woman Keeps Telling Her Lies on Me.”

Here’s an interview with her by fiddler Aly Bain in 1985. Her singing voice may reflect her age at this point, but her picking is still just absolutely phenomenal.

I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate her influence on American folk music. She was astonishing.


Ankeny, Jason. “Elizabeth Cotten.” Allmusic. Accessed 13 Aug 2020.

Bain, Aly. Down Home, BBC, 1985.

Demerle, L.L. “Remembering Elizabeth Cotten.” Eclectica Magazine, Vol. 1 No. 1, October, 1996. Accessed 13 Aug 2020.

Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. Maya Angelou, foreword. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999.


Intellectual Property, Accidental Plagiarism, and How to Avoid Common Pitfalls

I’m not trying to get into a bunch of crap publicly – I have my hands full right now with basically three full-time jobs, so I’m not naming names in this post. [1] But I feel like as a writer, editor, writing tutor/coach, former English teacher, and erstwhile journalist, I should maybe do this PSA for bloggers and denizens of social media who mean well but just don’t actually understand what plagiarism and intellectual property theft are, and so they are not aware of when they are guilty of it.

Now not all copyright infringement is plagiarism and vice versa, and I can’t possibly cover all of this in a few minutes. I also have no idea if anybody even cares lol, but from 10+ years of teaching writing to college students and over two decades tutoring and editing, I have a fairly good idea what the major misconceptions tend to be. And I see the results of these misconceptions every day online, from a huge variety of site contributors, business owners, and bloggers who are breaking the law and don’t even know it.

Plagiarism is bad manners and bad juju.


Here’s the thing — most student writers who got in trouble for plagiarism when I was teaching were doing it accidentally. They did not intend to commit fraud by passing off someone else’s ideas and words as their own. They just didn’t understand what did and didn’t count as plagiarism and what was required for proper, responsible citation.

Is a fledgling blogger with a small audience going to end up in court for not putting quotation marks around two sentences in their blog post? Not usually, no. But anybody blogging or doing research to write product descriptions or whatever has just positioned themselves as a professional. If you’re writing online, you just signed up to be subject to the rules. Ignorance of the law is no excuse and it will not protect you from takedown notices, demonetization, lawsuits, and/or the contempt of readers and other creators in your online communities.

Similarly, site owners who copy/paste huge chunks of text from another site and think it’s ok because they put the site’s URL at the bottom of the page are usually not trying to violate copyrights or steal intellectual property. Nevertheless, even accidental plagiarism can be considered fraud in academic contexts. And it can ruin your writing career and reputation in non-academic contexts, even if you never get sued. It can destroy your brand or channel fast if your platform removes your content or demonetizes yo, or Google decides they’ll never serve your ads again.

Here’s the simple definition of copyright infringement quoted from the
FAQ-Definitions” section of the U.S. Copyright Office’s website:

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