(The notes below are from Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes linernotes by Mike Seeger)
When Elizabeth Cotten and her brothers were playing music together each would have songs that they called their own, and this was one of that she made up and sung as hers, It was one of the few she ever composed herself and was largely inspired by the train running near her home. She sung the song in Washington and it was subsequently popularized by Peggy Seeger, Nancy Whiskey and Rusty Draper.
"We used to watch the freight train. We knew the fireman and the brakeman...and the conductor, my mother used to launder for him. They'd let us ride in the engine...put us in one of the coaches while they were backing up and changing...that was how I got my first train ride.
"We used to walk the trestle and put our ear to the track and listen for the train to come. My brother, he'd wait for the train to get real close and then he'd hang down from one of the ties and swing back up after the train had passed over him."