Domestic, 71, Sings Songs of Own Composition in ‘Village,’” ran a New York Times headline in November of 1965. The piece, about a woman with “five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, a guitar, a banjo and about 20 old-time folk songs,” heralded the return of then-unknown folk songstress Elizabeth Cotten, who was poised to play the Gaslight Cafe, on Macdougal Street in a Greenwich Village still quaintly set off by single quotation marks.
Though many had never heard Cotten’s name, they’d heard her most popular song, “Freight Train,” which became a hit when the crunchy folk ensemble Peter, Paul and Mary recorded and released it in 1963. (Many others have since recorded their own versions of the tune.) It was a song she’d written at 11 years old. But though it became a standard, Cotten was never famous, and she’d slipped into total obscurity for four decades while raising a family of her own and working as a domestic in North Carolina, then New York City and Washington, D.C.
While working briefly at a department store in the late 1940s, Cotten helped a lost little girl find her mother, and was offered a job as a maid for the family. The little girl was Peggy Seeger, who would go on to find folk-singing fame, and her mother was Ruth Crawford Seeger, a composer and folk music specialist. Cotten began doing the “washing, cleaning and baking” for the family of folk lovers — Charles Seeger, the patriarch, was a well-known musicologist; brother Mike was a musician and folklorist; and Pete Seeger was Peggy’s half brother — and it wasn’t long before she picked up a guitar and blew their minds.
Article by: Nina Renata Aron
Source: Timeline (www.timeline.com)