Elizabeth Cotten was only 11 years old when she wrote “Freight Train,” around 1904. But it wasn’t until the 1960s—after Cotten was discovered by the Seeger family and subsequently began her performing and recording career—that the song became a staple of the folk and fingerstyle repertoire.
On Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes, Cotten plays “Freight Train” with her guitar tuned down a whole step (low to high: D G C F A D). The transcription in the July 2017 issue is based on that recording, sounds a whole step lower than written. If you use light-gauge strings—or don’t feel like tuning down—just play the song in standard tuning.
In the instrumental intro as well as in the verses, Cotten plays the melody to this popular song over an alternating bass pattern. The key to playing these parts at the original tempo is practicing them slowly and using efficient fret-hand fingerings. For example, in the first four bars, keep your third finger anchored on string 6, fret 3; play the third-fret notes on strings 1 and 2 with your fourth finger, and the first-fret notes with your first finger.
As for your picking hand, a good rule of thumb, no pun intended, is to pick the notes on strings 6–4 with your thumb and those on the higher strings with one or two fingers. First focus on playing the bass pattern (down-stemmed notes) in steady quarter notes. Then add the melody, paying close attention to where the notes fall in relation to the bass line.
Practice the guitar part measure by measure until you can string the whole piece together. Then—as guitarists from Chet Atkins to Julian Lage have done—work on making the song your own.
For more tips, see Pete Madsen’s lesson on “How to Play the Blues Like Elizabeth Cotten.”
Want the complete lyrics, chords, and strumming patterns, plus advice on how to learn and master Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train?” It’s all available in the 2017 digital archive of Acoustic Guitar magazine.