The Visitors

March 3, 2009

Today my music theory class, mentioned below, started with a YouTube playback of Elizabeth (“Liba”) Cotten singing her own “Freight Train.” I was offended to read in the folk music anthology that I own (that the publisher claims that THEY own the right to, which I trust only refers to the imprint — and not the music), the composer was attributed as “American” when it should have said “Elizabeth Cotten.” How much effort would it be to attribute that credit? Here is a black woman who composes REALLY good songs, and all she gets is “American”? Liba was a maid/nanny/gramma figure in Mike Seeger’s life. And it blows my mind that SHE wrote “Freight Train.” She is clearly one of the unsung roots of American folk music. I feel blessed to have seen this video. Can you imagine having this gal as your nanny? So cool!

Today was Visitors Day in my class. I knew that Mimi Alpert Feldman (a donor to our department and sister of Herb), and Rona Sebastian (exec dir of the Herb Alpert Foundation) would be coming for the second part of class. And for them, Wyatt and Joseph played and sang a beautiful rendition of “Shenandoah” with guitar and mandolin. They switched instruments and did one more song to the delight of the whole class and our visiting angels.

The first part of the hour was started with Liba’s performance of “Freight Train.” One minute into the introduction and chat, in came 35 fifth-graders with teachers, who lined up along the side of the room. I paused and explained what they were about to hear, and that they might sing along when so instructed.

As you’ll see if you watch the video, Pete Seeger encourages us to sing along. And then magically, the words appear on the screen — not optimally, but at least there for us to sing — and the 5th graders and my brilliant first year theory class sang along with “Freight Train.” What a moment to remember! (Be sure to check out an even better video of Liba.)

I asked: “What’s the story with her instrument that’s facing this way (I pointed to Liba holding her guitar) and THIS instrument (pointing to Pete’s guitar)? In a heartbeat, this black girl, who locked with my eyes the entire time — almost an Hermione-type personality — fired back: “She’s left-handed.”

“Correct!” I exclaimed, feeling slightly like Dumbledore, and continued: “Just like Paul McCartney of the Beatles: when he shares a microphone with George Harrison, the two face each other and their guitar’s mirror each other, just like Liba and Pete.” I was not convinced any of them had any idea who Paul McCartney was, not to mention John or George, but at that moment, the teachers thanked me and the whole group filed out.

That was a first is a so-called “music theory” class.

[Tony Seeger is one of my colleagues at UCLA and I will ask him to read this over and correct any errors in my Liba-Seeger narrative. And is it “Libba”?]

This just in from Tony:

Dear Roger,

Elizabeth (Libba, as she was called by the Charles Seeger/Ruth Crawford
Seeger kids who knew her when they were small) Cotten certainly wrote
the song (I think there are 2 bs in Libba), but it was made famous and
infamously copyrighted by a popular music group that made a fortune on
it. I can’t recall how the lawsuit ended up, but it is a scandal.
Perhaps that is why the wording is simply “American.” There is no doubt
she wrote the song, and cleaned and cooked for Charles Seeger, Ruth
Crawford, and their 4 children. Mike Seeger often toured with Libba in
her later years and spoke of her (and played some music in her style)
when he was here last year.

Sounds like fun. Those two Freshmen are really good. I’m glad they got
a chance to play for the group. I saw them coming back from it and they
were radiant.



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