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Here’s a story for you.
An African American girl, born in 1893 in the American South, buys a guitar at the age of 11 with money she scrapes together doing domestic work.
The girl is left handed. The only available guitar is for a right handed player.
She teaches herself how to play, holding the instrument upside down (as she did with the banjo as well), in so doing inventing an entirely novel fingerpicking style.
She soon begins writing her own songs.
As she enters adulthood and starts her family, however, she gives up guitar playing.
Later on, she so happens to land a job as housekeeper for the Seeger’s, a family dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of folk music. They find out that she once played banjo and guitar.
On a reel to reel recorder in the bedroom of the Seeger home, Mike Seeger makes some recordings of the woman, now around 60 years of age, playing some of those songs she wrote long ago.
One of those is the song Freight Train, which she wrote at the age of 14.
Mike’s recording of it would be released by Folkways Records on the Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar album.
The song goes on to become one of the most beloved folks songs of all time, covered by artists including Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Doc Watson, and Taj Mahal. Learning how to play it becomes a rite of passage for country blues guitarists the world over.
The story of Elizabeth (aka “Libba”) Cotten and the song “Freight Train” may be my favorite in all of folk music.
It’s a story so improbable that, had it not actually transpired, few would think it possible (and if that’s not inspiring enough, click here for a fantastic video of a 90+ year old Libba telling her story and playing Freight Train (and the banjo, too!))
It’s also one of my all time favorite songs. As you can hear, it translates quite well to the banjo.
gDGBD tuning, Brainjo level 3
Notes on the Tab
In the tab above, you’ll note I’ve tabbed out both a “lead break” (something to play in between verses) and the “vocal backup” (what I play while I’m singing).
For more on reading tabs in general, check out this complete guide to reading banjo tabs.
PRIOR SONG OF THE WEEK EPISODES
- Episode 1: “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow”
- Episode 2: “Gumtree Canoe”
- Episode 3: “Crawdad Hole”
- Episode 4: “Oh Susanna”
Level 2 arrangements and video demos for the Tune (and Song!) of the Week tunes are now available as part of the Breakthrough Banjo course. Learn more about it here.