It Ain’t No Lie

The song ‘Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie’ was written by Elizabeth Cotten, an American blues, ragtime and folk musician, singer, and songwriter who played guitar left-handed.  She is best known for her timeless song ‘Freight Train’ which she wrote at the age of 11 and it would later be played by the Quarrymen, before they became the Beatles.  Cotten was never famous, and she’d slipped into total obscurity for four decades while raising a family of her own and working as a domestic in North Carolina, then New York City and Washington, D.C.  Peter, Paul & Mary had a hit with their cover version of her song ‘Freight Train’ in 1963, but before that very few people outside of a small circle knew anything about Elizabeth Cotten.  In 1984, when she was 90, she won a Grammy in the category of “Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording”, and she toured and performed to the end of her life, giving her last concert in New York in 1987, just before her death at age 94.

She played a right-handed guitar upside down and her signature style became known as “Cotton picking”, as she closed her eyes when she plucked the notes.  Elizabeth Cotten earned her living selling dolls in a department store, when she discovered a lost child, Peggy Seeger, and returned her to her mother and then she began working at the Seeger household as a maid.   She took care of Pete Seeger and his younger step-siblings while attending to her other domestic duties.   She played her first live show with Mike Seeger in 1959 who founded The New Lost City Ramblers in 1958 and devoted his life to documenting, teaching, keeping alive, and carrying forth the sounds of traditional music of the American South.  Eventually she was playing alongside stars like Taj Mahal and Muddy Waters.  Cotten also played the legendary Newport Folk Festival in 1968, as well as the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Smithsonian Festival, and others. 

Pete Seeger and John Cohen included two of her originals both ‘Freight Train’ and ‘Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie’ in their 1964 New Lost City Ramblers SongbookElizabeth recorded her first record, Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar in 1958 and ‘Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie’ was one of the fourteen songs on it.  Garcia fell in love with ‘Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie’ and the Grateful Dead played it in 1980 and a total of thirteen times till 1984 in some of their acoustic sets.  Later on the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, which consisted of Jerry, David Nelson, Sandy Rothman and John Kahn played this in some of their sets between March of 1987 and July of 1988. 

Elizabeth Cotton said that she wrote ‘Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie’ about a lady named Miss Mary who lived next door to her.  One day her mother had to go to work and this lady came by to teach the children.  She told Elizabeth’s mother something that ended in her getting punished.  She said that she was really hurt because she knew what the lady told her mum was not true and this song is about her getting punished.  Her feelings got hurt, because she was innocent of the charges, so she went to bed and cried.  A little verse came to her, a pretty tune followed, and she made this lovely song from that experience.

One old women Lord in this town
Keeps a-telling her lies on me
Wish to my soul that old women would die
Keep a-telling her lies on me

Oh babe it ain’t no lie
Oh babe it ain’t no lie
Oh babe it ain’t no lie
Know this life I’m living is very high

Been all around this whole round world
Lord I just got back today
Work all the week hon and I give it all to you
Honey baby what more can I do

Oh babe it ain’t no lie
Oh babe it ain’t no lie
Oh babe it ain’t no lie
Know this life I’m living is very high

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the prompt is No/Yes.

19 thoughts on “It Ain’t No Lie

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