Paul Wilkinson (aka 400 Bears) premieres video of Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train”

Published on July 1, 2020

What is it about trains that capture our imagination? Where are they going? Where have they been? A way to get somewhere and maybe more importantly a way to get away from somewhere to a home that lives beyond our imagination. Elizabeth Cotton captured the mystique and wonder of freight trains in a beautiful song that became a staple in the folk music world and a rite of passage for any aspiring finger picking guitar player.

Elizabeth Cotton (1893-1987) was born in Chapel Hill, NC and took to the banjo at an early age. Once she was able to save up $3.75, she purchased her first guitar. She played left handed on a right handed guitar. This meant that her thumb would play the higher strings and fingers were doing the bass notes. This in combination with her familiarity with banjo picking led to her unique style.

A fortuitous encounter in a department store where she helped Peggy Seeger find her mother led to her being employed by the Seeger family. Soon it was discovered what a musical treasure lay within Elizabeth Cotton. Mike Seeger recorded what was to be her first album on his reel to reel; the album was released in the late 50’s. She played an important role during the 60’s folk revival and won a Grammy in 1984 close to to age of 90.

When all gigs disappeared due to the global pandemic I was at a loss for a bit how to proceed and then realized it was a great opportunity to get into home recording. Freight Train has been a staple in my repertoire and can be found floating in my head often so it was the perfect tune to start with. I played all the stringed instruments and even added some pedal steel which I am VERY new to. After getting things going Brad Hinton flew in the background vocals. He’s a ringer with home recording. Glenn Ferracone added drums and mixed all the parts into the final product. When thinking of how to do a video, I dove into the Prelinger Archives. This is a wonderful resource of public domain video footage. It is a reward in itself to search through the archives and see what pops up. To kick off the video I was able to capture the East Penn Railroad engine that goes by my house blowing its horn to remind us that things keep coming and things keep going.

Many, many other outstanding versions can be found by the likes of: Garcia / Grisman, Taj Mahal, and six string luminaries Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, and Julian Lage.

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