FREIGHT TRAIN (folk song)

Freight Train (folk song)

Released December 1956
Recorded Levy’s Sound Studios, New Bond Street, London

Label Oriole

Writer(s) Elizabeth Cotten
Producer(s) Jack Baverstock

“Freight Train” is an American folk song written by Elizabeth Cotten in the early 20th century, and popularized during the American folk revival and British skiffle period of the 1950s and 1960s. By Cotten’s own account in the 1985 BBC series Down Home, she composed “Freight Train” as a teenager (sometime between 1906 and 1912), inspired by the sound of the trains rolling in on the tracks near her home in North Carolina.

Early British skiffle singer Chas McDevitt recorded the song in December 1956, however under advice from his manager (Bill Varley), McDevitt then brought in folk-singer Nancy Whiskey and re-recorded the song with her doing the vocal, the result was a chart hit. McDevitt’s version influenced many young skiffle groups of the day including one known as The Quarrymen. The Elizabeth Cotten recording for the Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar album was made by Mike Seeger in late 1957, early 1958, at Cotten’s home in Washington, D.C. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott recorded this song in 1957. It is included on the CD, The Lost Topic Tapes: Cowes Harbour 1957.

Beatles cover versions

According to author Mark Lewisohn in The Complete Beatles Chronicles (p. 362) the young Quarrymen-Beatles performed it live from 1957 till at least 1959 if not later, with John Lennon on lead vocal. No recorded version is known to survive. However, in January 1991, while doing recorded rehearsals in Sussex, England for the initial Unplugged TV show, Paul McCartney led his band through a small group of classic skiffle songs. The concluding number was “Freight Train”, with McCartney and all getting off to great start, however then suddenly just a few seconds into the song McCartney mysteriously stopped it all (this recording is available on an unauthorized release called Paul McCartney Limelight. In 2009 Quarrymen member Rod Davis recorded a full version of the song and this was released on his album Under The Influence released by Scorpion.

Other recorded versions

Many artists have since recorded their own version of the song, including

Charting versions

Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey (No. 5 on the UK Singles Chart in 1957)
Rusty Draper (charted to the US top ten, end of 1957)