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EPISODE 8: "Freight Train"
by Josh Turknett, clawhammerbanjo.net
The story of Elizabeth (aka “Libba”) Cotten and the song “Freight Train” may be my favorite in all of folk music.
An African American girl, born in 1893 in the American South, buys a guitar at the age of 11 with money she scrapes together doing domestic work.
Only problem: she's left handed, and the only available guitar is for a right hand player.
She teaches herself how to play, holding the instrument upside down. She starts writing her own songs.
Decades later, she lands a job working as housekeeper for the Seeger family, who eventually discover she once played guitar and banjo.
On a reel to reel recorder in the bedroom of the Seeger home, Mike Seeger makes some recordings of the woman, now around 60 years of age, playing some of those songs she wrote long ago.
One of those is the song Freight Train, which she wrote at the age of 14.
After its release by Folkways Records, it goes on to become one of the most beloved folks songs of all time, covered by artists including Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Doc Watson, and Taj Mahal. Learning how to play it becomes a rite of passage for country blues guitarists the world over.
Fortunately for us banjo enthusiasts, Freight Train also sounds great on the 5-string. And given its backstory and widespread appeal, is more than deserving of a spot in our core repertoire.
Step 1: Know Thy Melody
Just one repeating melodic unit to remember here.
Listen to it enough times so that you can sing it on command. Click here to listen to Libba play it (albeit in a different key, she being a girl and all...).
Step 2: Find the Chords
One of the things that adds a little interest to this tune is the use of the B major chord. Since this in the key of G here, some would refer to this as a "majored 3rd chord" (since typically there's a B minor as the 3rd chord in the G scale).
Beyond that A chord, the rest are Is, IVs, and Vs, in this case G major, C major, and D major since we're playing out of the key of G.
And speaking of the key of G, make sure you're tuned to standard G, aka gDGBD tuning.
Once there, see if you can pick out the basic chord progression by ear.
(RELATED: Are you just getting started, or not comfortable yet with playing by ear? Click here to take a short quiz to see if you have what it takes to play by ear, and to take the free “Getting Started Playing By Ear” course).
When you think you've got it, check your answers with the chord progression diagram below:
Step 3: Play A Basic Backup Pattern While Fingering the Chord Progression
Doesn't take anything fancy here to produce perfectly excellent banjo backup for your singing, just the bum ditty clawhammer pattern while fingering the chords.
Here's what that sounds like, with and without singing:
Freight Train backup with singing.mp3
And here's that in tab:
Step 4: Add Some Easily Accessed Melody Notes
Want to add a little bit of interest to your backup? No problem.
The simplest way to do so is to find the melody notes that require no extra work on behalf of the fretting hand. This of course requires us to know where those melody notes are located. So...
Here's the basic melody of “Freight Train” played on the banjo.
Freight Train melody.mp3
And here's the melody in tab:
Now, if we add in the melody notes that require no extra movement of our fretting hand (as it's fingering the chords), we come up with this backup pattern (retained melody notes placed in bold).
And here's how our new backup sounds along with some singin':
And there you have it! You've just added another timeless classic to your repertoire.
If you'd like to download my full arrangement as played in the video, along with the tab for the banjo solo, just click below (you'll also get a new song and tab delivered to you every week as a bonus!):
Want to view all of the prior Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series episodes?
About the Author
Dr. Josh Turknett is the creator of Breakthrough Banjo, the first music beginner to advanced system for learning clawhammer banjo that incorporates the science of learning and neuroplasticity and specifically target the adult learner (click to learn more)
Tuesday, August 23, 2016 @1:19:13 PM
Is it not a B Maj rather than an A Maj?
Tuesday, August 23, 2016 @1:55:38 PM
I vote B maj, too. We win. :-)
Josh Turknett Says:
Tuesday, August 23, 2016 @2:23:48 PM
I third that vote. Motion passed!
You'll be pleased to know I've fired my proofreader.
(On a related note, anyone looking to hire a mediocre proofreader?)
C Nyal de Kaye Says:
Tuesday, August 23, 2016 @5:08:13 PM
Well performed and I like the harmony singing. Great old song and one I know well. Thank you both.
Josh Turknett Says:
Wednesday, August 24, 2016 @11:24:34 AM
Thanks from the both of us!
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