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FREIGHT TRAIN by Elizabeth Cotten – Arranged for ukulele by Ukulele Mike Lynch . . . . a Fingerpicking arrangement by Ukulele Mike. . . Included in the Solo Ukulele Instrumentals Fingerpicking Instrumentals Fingerpicking edition 2013 now reduced to just $20

July 13, 2013


According to Wikipedia Elizabeth Nevills (Cotten) was born in Carrboro, North Carolina, at the border of Chapel Hill, to a musical family. Her parents were George Nevills and Louise Price Nevills. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. At age seven, Cotten began to play her older brother’s banjo. By eight years old, she was playing songs. At the age of 11, after scraping together some income as a domestic helper, she bought her own guitar. Although self-taught, she became very good at playing the instrument. By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, “Freight Train”, would go on to be one of her most recognized. Cotten wrote “Freight Train” when she saw a train pass by her house on Lloyd Street in Carrboro, North Carolina.

Around the age of 13, Cotten began working as a maid along with her mother. Soon after the age of 15, she was married to Frank Cotten. The couple had a daughter named Lillie, and soon after young Elizabeth gave up guitar playing for family and church. Elizabeth, Frank and their daughter Lillie moved around the eastern United States for a number of years between North Carolina, New York, and Washington, D.C., finally settling in the D.C. area. When Lillie married, Elizabeth separated from Frank and moved in with her daughter and her family.

Elizabeth Cotten retired from guitar playing and songwriting for decades until she was eventually rediscovered. Cotten had retired from the guitar for 25 years, except for occasional church performances. It wasn’t until she reached her 60s that she began recording and performing publicly. She was discovered by the folk-singing Seeger family while she was working for them as a housekeeper.

While working for a brief stint in a department store, Cotten helped a child wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Penny Seeger, and the mother was composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Soon after this, Elizabeth again began working as a maid, caring for Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger’s children, Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny. While working with the Seegers (a voraciously musical family) she remembered her own guitar playing from 40 years prior and picked up the instrument again to relearn almost from scratch.

Now, with her connection with the celebrated Seeger family her music was introduced to numerous folk artists of the era. Her signature song FREIGHT TRAIN has been covered by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Gerry Garcia, Peter Paul & Mary among others. I have attempted in this ukulele arrangement to faithfully capture the rhythmic feeling she created on her guitar. Using the distinctive fingericking style “TRAVIS PICKING” that bouncy raggy feel is produced. Below is a snippet from my arrangement in tablature form that shows that “TRAVIS” style of picking. Notice the consistent thumb stroke 4 times each bar. That along with the swingy 8th note feel creates that iconic sound that has come to be a hallmark of the Folk Style.


Freight Train music 1111

Take note that the thumb strokes alternate between the 4th and 3rd strings giving it that distinctive bouncy sound. The 2nd finger plays the 1st string and the Index finger plays the 2nd string throughout.

YouTube performance of FREIGHT TRAIN as arranged by UKULELE MIKE LYNCH

The snippet of music below shows the “CODA” section of FREIGHT TRAIN. The word CODA applies to a section of music that is reserved for the end of the composition. Sometimes we call that a tag ending. It is a piece of music that only happens at the very end of the song. Within the music the word “Go To Coda” instructs us to go directly to the CODA section to finish the piece. The CODA section breaks from the normal TRAVIS pick as a departure that leads us to the end of the piece.

Freight train 222

Full tablature arrangement of FREIGHT TRAIN is included in my SOLO UKULELE INSTRUMENTALS eBook 2013 Enlarged Edition now reduced to just $20.00 and can be purchased by paying through the paypal donate button on the Ukulele Mike website: Once purchased it will be emailed to you within the day.




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