She may be 88, but one of America's most respected folk musicians, Libba Cotten, isn't considering retirement. The woman who wrote the song "Freight Train" (but didn't know anyone knew about it until she heard Peter, Paul and Mary sing it one night on television) still travels the concert circuit. Last year she played at a music festival in Switzerland with Taj Mahal, and her agent says Cotten is in demand at universities around the country.
"I'm kinda tired of airplanes," says Cotten, "so I go in cars if I can."
Today Cotten lives in Syracuse, but for most of the past 30 years she lived in the Washington area, where a chance meeting with the musical Seegar family reawakened her childhood love of folk music.
Cotten taught herself to play the guitar and banjo as a child in Chapel Hill, N.C. She wrote songs for fun, including the now classic "Freight Train." When she moved to Washington in the '50s, Cotten worked in a department store. There she met the Seegar family and went to work -- by chance -- as a domestic in one of the most important houses in the history of American folk music. Mike Seegar is today a respected player of traditional American music. His father, Charles, was a scholar of American folk music. His mother, Ruth Crawford Seegar, was a composer, and his half-brother, Pete Seegar, is a wellknown balladeer as is Mike Seegar's sister, Peggy.
Cotten again began playing the guitar, and it was Peggy Seegar who heard her sing "Freight Train." During a European tour, Peggy sang the song. A british performer heard it, recorded it and made it a hit. Since then it's been performed by dozens of big-name artists, and cotten first learned the song had become popular when she saw Peter, Paul and Mary sing it on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
With the help of the Seegars, Cotten went to court, and according to her agent, John Ullman, she secured the right to receive one-third of the royalties the song earns.
For Cotten, the thrill of a musical career as a senior citizen is unmatched.What does she think about when she hears her childhood song on the radio?
"I think about when I was a little girl and how I used to sing that and watch the train coming in," she says. "We'd always wave at the train, and sometimes now I lay awake at night and think about all those things. Because I was happy then, and it makes me feel so good."