In 1956, 21-year-old American folk singer Peggy Seeger hit No. 5 on the British charts with the song “Freight Train.” That same year, Harry Belafonte became the first solo artist with a million-selling album with his seminal Calypso.
Seeger, part of a family that had deep and wide influence on the looming folk revival, learned her song from her family’s housekeeper and nanny, a woman she called Libba — Elizabeth Cotten. Cotten came into the Seegers’ life by one of those wonderful coincidences. She was working at a Washington, D.C. department store and helped a young mother reunite with her lost daughter. The little girl was Peggy, the harried mom was modernist composer Ruth Seeger. Ruth hired Cotten and, one day, her new employee pulled a guitar off the wall and, being left-handed, flipped it upside down and played her song “Freight Train,” which she’d written as a teenager in her native North Carolina.
Cotten was self-taught. Her unorthodox upside-down style — a product of her left-handedness and the fact she learned to play a banjo before picking up the guitar — had her play the melody with her thumbs and pick out the bass with her fingers. She was a prolific and innately gifted songwriter and the influence of her songs — “Freight Train” has been covered by virtually every member of the American folk movement, though Cotten rarely received a songwriting credit, a not-unusual occurrence with folk music in general and extremely common in the mid-20th century when the songwriter was Black. Peggy’s brother, Mike, recorded Cotten on a reel-to-reel in his bedroom and released those recordings in 1958 on Folkways Records. That album is cited as influential by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and scores of other critical members of the folk revival.
Meanwhile, in New York, Harry Belafonte, the son of immigrants, was bringing another type of folk music to a massive audience. Belafonte’s Caribbean songs were like a shot of tropical sunshine to American audiences. “Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song” introduced the balmy sound of calypso to the gray flannel world of 1950s America.
Whereas Cotten’s music found the right audience — musicians who would forever change rock ‘n’ roll — Belafonte’s seemingly found everybody.
Each in their way also became must-see live acts. Belafonte’s 1959 Belafonte at Carnegie Hall was the first live album ever nominated for the Grammy for Album of the Year. His 1960 follow-up Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall was the second. In 1959, he won an Emmy for “Tonight With Belafonte,” also in 1959.
Cotten, meanwhile, became a regular at Newport and other folk festivals in the 1960s (often sharing the bill with white artists who were getting songwriter credit for “Freight Train”).
And, in another connection between Belafonte and Cotten, in 1962 he gave a devotee of hers a gig playing harmonica on his album Midnight Special. It was Bob Dylan’s first credited recording.
Belafonte is also known for his activism. A confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr., he was one of the first American artists to draw attention to apartheid. He regularly (and continues to regularly) advocate for civil rights and was a driving force behind 1985’s “We Are The World.”
Cotten died in 1987, three years after winning a Grammy for Elizabeth Cotten Live. Belafonte, now 95, continues to advocate for righteous causes. s