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Freight Train - Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group featuring Nancy Whiskey

I'm back from my summer break, not that it has been much of a summer. So I'll pick up the thread of trains and the warmer summer of my youth, travelling across Europe (see last post).

My first stop in my European Interrail destination was a sleepy, little village in the north of Italy called Inarzo, where Aylie, a girl from my school lived, and where I met up with my classmate Chris. Aylie had told me to go there and ask for "la signora con i cavalli" - "the lady with the horses" and sure enough, the first person I encountered directed me to a large high-walled house. Aylie's mother was a tall, effusive and energetic German, with an extremely strong accent to her English, and her father a shorter, long-retired member of the English military. He had been put in charge of the administration of the area in the aftermath of the second world war where he had met his future wife. At the end of his administrative tenure he had elected to stay on in the area, doing a bit of buying and selling, investing in recovering local businesses and general wheeling and dealing. His private passion was horse racing. He used to love to go and watch the local races, in particular those at the San Siro racecourse in Milan, betting and getting to know the jockeys, trainers and owners, many of whom were his business partners and customers. He told me he observed a certain Latin indifference to the fate of injured horses, which he recalled, were all too easily "put down to be turned into salami" if they were injured or became badly ill. He himself loved horses and carved out a niche in patiently nursing racers and jumpers back to full health so that they could compete again, or at the very least, be fit for breeding.

Aylie was one of the most outgoing and intelligent girls in my school, and this coupled with her good looks meant she acted as a kind of siren for her male classmates, like Chis and me. When we arrived we were told she was seeing a friend up at the lakes for a few days, but were welcome to stay until she returned. Of course, we would have to earn our keep, and so we found ourselves bivouacked in a small caravan next to the stables, rather than the beautiful large house. After a week of hard labour, looking after five giant racehorses, we were somewhat perturbed when Aylie turned up with one Mark Swann, a rugged Aussie schoolmate, with whom she seemed to be on more than just friendly terms. We were only slightly mollified when he was billeted, like us, in the rundown caravan, as a third hostler. It was fun, we were fed well, and benefitted from the satisfaction of toiling hard under the Italian sun and Aylie's fair gaze. Her mother was energetic and eccentric with a thick German accent. One day she announced that she as going into the fields to get "some mice for supper." "You like mice" she demanded rather than just asked of me. I replied, somewhat shocked, and recalling that I'd heard that dormice used to be a delicacy, that I'd never tried them. She was surprised and told me I was in for a treat. I was relieved that evening when we were presented with a plate of hot, buttery corn on the cob, "maize", of course. We ate from a large wooden table outside and our meals were frequently shared with their resident Shetland pony, "Ooh la la", who roamed the garden and nipped in to grab a mouthful of spaghetti whenever we were off our guard.

Once, while brushing him down, a large black racehorse called Nenuncio stood on my right foot. No-one else was around, he was, as horses are, very heavy. He was feeling affectionate and was leaning his head into me, seemingly oblivious to the pain he was causing and no matter how much I pushed his neck and upper flank, I couldn't budge him. After an age, he shifted his weight and I was able to extricate myself. I interpreted this as a sign, and suggested to Chris we moved on which we did the following day. Just before we left, we heard that another male school mate, this time a kiwi, was arriving later that morning.

Elizabeth Cotten was born, literally, "on the wrong side of the tracks" in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and it was the memory of the passing trains which provided the rhythm and inspiration for her song "Freight Train". At the age of 8, she left school to work as a domestic servant for a white family, for a dollar a month, which her mother saved to buy her a guitar. Through her teens and twenties, she wrote songs, performing for friends and family, and sometimes in church, but, with the pressure of domestic work and bringing up a daughter, and upon the advice of her church leaders, she gave up her "worldly music". Some 25 years later, when she was working in a department store in Washington DC, she rescued a three year old girl who was lost, returning her to her mother. Impressed, the mother swiftly made arrangements to employ Cotten as their housekeeper. The family was the musical Seeger family: both parents were composers and music teachers and the little girl was Peggy Seeger (see post May 6th 2020, ), younger stepsister of American folk music legend Pete Seeger. Elizabeth had been working for them for a number of years when Peggy chanced upon her playing one of the family guitars. Elizabeth apologised but Peggy urged her to to carry on and was astounded by what she heard. Brother Mike Seeger, himself an established folk singer, began recording her songs, and Elizabeth began playing small concerts, at first in support of Mike and then in the homes of senators and congressmen, including one John F Kennedy, with such success that, at the ripe old age of 62, she finally recorded and released her first album.

When Peggy Seeger moved to England in the late fifties, she performed Cotten's "Freight Train" and it quickly became a staple of the folk circuits. As happened with a lot of folk songs whose authors were seemingly lost in the sands of time a pair of music sharpies, names of Paul James and Fred Williams, copyrighted "Freight Train" as their own composition so when in 1957 Chas McDevitt and his journeyman skiffle group, had a million seller hit with the song on both sides of the Atlantic, Cotten was initially robbed of her dues until the Seeger family intervened, and she received a third of the writers' income accruing.

"Freight Train" was one of the numbers that inspired and featured in the set of the original Quarrymen, the juvenile Liverpudlian skiffle band that featured John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison and gave birth to the Beatles.

Nenuncio made a full recovery and went on to in many races in Italy. I never saw Aylie or Mark again, so they could still be together for all I know. Elizabeth Cotten died in 1987 aged 94, but not before she had recorded seven albums, toured the US many times over, won a Grammy award for a recording of one of her concerts and bought her own house. In 1963, she also finally received sole accreditation for writing "Freight Train".


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