Making her debut as a folk singer at age 67, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten played an important role in the folk-music revival of the 1950s with her unique style of guitar playing. “Freight Train,” a song that she wrote when she was 12, is considered a folk classic, and her songs have been recorded by artists such as the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Larry Sandberg and Dick Weissman wrote in The Folk Music Sourcebook, “Cotten has cultivated the most graceful and dignified of all finger-picking styles.” As was noted in the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, “with elements of ragtime and gospel, [Cotten’s] picking style became standard in folk guitar playing.”
While Cotten’s songs have been compared to the works of Mississippi John Hurt, John Jackson, and John Spence, her style of playing was truly her own. “Although influenced by others that she had heard, Elizabeth was a true, original source, going back to the turn of the century,” said Dana Klipp, Cotten’s accompanist in her later years, in Acoustic Guitar. “She was a link to that authentic style…. Her style of playing left-handed on
Born January 5, c. 1892 (sources differ on exact year), in Chapel Hill, NC; died June 29, 1987, in Syracuse, NY; daughter of George and Louisa (Price) Nevills; married Frank Cotten (divorced); children: Lillie.
Wrote classic folk song “Freight Train” at age 12; worked as domestic servant and held other odd jobs; hired by musicologists Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger, 1940s; recorded first album, Elizabeth Cotten, on Folkways label, 1957; secured partial rights to “Freight Train,” 1957; performed in public for first time (with Mike Seeger), 1959; appeared at numerous folk festivals, including Newport Folk Festival, 1964; Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, 1968-71, 1975; Washington Blues Festival, 1978; performed in Grass Roots Series video, Old Time Music, 1974; was guest performer at the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., 1975; appeared in “Me and Stella” documentary on PBS, 1977; was named the city’s first “Living Treasure” after moving to Syracuse, NY, 1978; appeared at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY, 1978; toured with Taj Mahal in the U.S. and Europe, 1980s.
Selected awards: Burl Ives Award from National Folk Association, 1972; National Heritage Fellowship from National Endowment for the Arts, 1984; Grammy Award for best traditional folk music recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live!, 1985.
a right-handed guitar was unique, producing a sound unlike anything a right-handed player could simulate. This technique gives her music a softer, almost classical sound. A combination of her unparalleled technique and her custom of using light strings contribute to her sound.”
Cotten grew up in a musical family in an area of North Carolina with a solid tradition of blues and church music. Her mother sang, and her uncles played the fiddle and banjo. By age seven Cotten would often sneak into her brother’s room while he was at work and strum his homemade banjo. Not knowing the standard way to play the instrument, she strummed it with her left hand and held the frets with her right. “Say I’m a musician if you want to, but I didn’t know one chord from another,” said the entirely self-taught Cotten, according to The Washingtonian.
When her brother left home and took his instrument along, the 11-year-old Cotten quit school so that she could go to work and earn enough money to buy a guitar. She purchased her first instrument, a Stella Demonstrator guitar from Sears Roebuck, for $3.75. As with the banjo, Cotten played the guitar left-handed, further developing her method of picking that used just two fingers. She practiced relentlessly, much to the chagrin of her family. “My mother said, ’Now if you don’t put that thing down, I’m gonna git ya,’” she was quoted as saying in U.S. News & World Report. “I gotta get to sleep and to work in the mornin’.’ And I just keep everybody awake all night. Lord have mercy. I was a nuisance.”
Soon after learning to play the guitar, Cotten composed her famed “Freight Train” composition. Before long she could play a wide range of tunes that incorporated a variety of genres. “Influenced by the guitarists of the time, traveling musicians, medicine shows, minstrel shows, and local musical styles, Cotten developed an extensive repertoire of standards, dance tunes, and rags,” according to Linda Demmerle in Acoustic Guitar.
Marriage at age 15, followed by the birth of a daughter a year later, diverted Cotten’s focus away from her music. Her musical career eventually came to a complete halt, due to the influence of officials at her church who wanted her to devote herself more to religion. When she realized that religious songs were not nearly as enjoyable as the music she had been playing for years, she stopped playing her guitar altogether.
Cotten worked as a domestic servant in Chapel Hill, New York, and other places for much of her adult life. In 1947, following her divorce, she moved to Washington, D.C., so she could be closer to her daughter. While there, she took a job selling dolls in Landsburgh’s Department Store, where a chance meeting changed her life forever. After finding a lost little girl named Peggy Seeger, she returned the child to her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. Ruth Seeger showed her thanks by offering Cotten a job as a domestic servant for her household. Little did Cotten know that both Ruth Seeger and her husband, Mike, were musicologists, and the parents of future folk-singing legend Pete Seeger.
At the time of Cotten’s hiring, Ruth Seeger was compiling a collection of folk songs for her children. Cotten would often borrow Peggy Seeger’s guitar and practice during her spare time, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that her talent became known to Mike and Ruth Seeger. Nicknaming her “Libba,” the Seegers eagerly brought Cotten into their musical fold. Mike Seeger first introduced her to the recording studio in 1952, producing her first album in 1957. She had her performing debut along with Mike Seeger at Swarthmore College in 1959 when she was a 67-year-old grandmother. Acclaim for her first recording resulted in her being invited to numerous folk and blues festivals in the years that followed, as a surging interest in folk music swept the country.
Cotter’s “Freight Train,” which had lain dormant in her repertoire for many decades, became the subject of a legal dispute in the 1950s. After Peggy Seeger had gone to England and performed the song, it was heard and recorded by Nancy Whiskey. Seeger had recorded the song for two men who then took credit for it, and it became a number-five hit in the United Kingdom. When the song, as recorded by Charles McDevitt, hit the top 40 in the U.S., Cotten heard it on the radio and began to wonder what was going on. With the help of Pete Seeger and after numerous court cases, Cotten was granted one-third of the credit for the song in 1957. In the early 1960s the song was also recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary.
After her discovery Cotten became a fixture on the folk circuit. Starting in 1963 she performed solo in concert, and she appeared often at major festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival. Over the years Cotten was on the same bill with noted performers such as John Hurt, Skip James, John Estes, Muddy Waters, and Otis Spann. From the late 1960s to early 1970s she also appeared at the American Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Cotten was a guest performer at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in a performance of native American music, and in 1978 she performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Like many folk musicians, Cotten improvised often and seldom played a song the same way twice. She enjoyed audience participation, frequently requesting that everyone sing along with her. Her straightforward, honest delivery on stage was a testament to her passion for her music. “I just love to sing,” she said, according to The Washingtonian. “I love to get up before people and let ’em hear what I can do.”
Refusing to slow down with age, Cotten maintained an active performance schedule into the 1980s and even went on an American and European tour with the group Taj Mahal when she was 90. Dana Klipp joined her in 1984, after Cotten began having difficulties with her hands that limited her guitar playing. Cotten gave her final performance at City College in New York City’s Harlem in February of 1987, just four months before her death. “[Cotten] was an inspiration,” said Klipp in Acoustic Guitar. “She endured and overcame hardships to share her music.”
“Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie.”
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Versatile folk/blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Elizabeth Cotten (1892-1987)—creator of the classic song "Freight Train"—performed in concert for the first time at age 67 and won a Grammy Award in 1985 at age 93.
American folk and blues musician Elizabeth Cotten, composer of the folk song classic "Freight Train" and recipient of a 1985 Grammy Award at age 93, began her career in music at an age when most people prepare for retirement. At 67 years of age Cotten, known as "Libba" by the folksinging Seeger family who discovered her talent, performed live in concert for the first time. A former maid, this versatile musician was also a songwriter and guitarist. Legendary for strumming left-handed on a guitar designed for right-handers, rather than reverse the strings she would play the guitar backwards, "pick[ing] with her left hand and chord[ing] with her right," wrote Martin F. Kohn of the Detroit Free Press. Playing the guitar and banjo, using "two-finger" and "three-finger" stylings, became her musical signature. This "Cotten style" of playing the guitar has made her one of the "finest fingerpickers on record," noted a contributor for Guitar Player magazine.
Though "Libba" Cotten had not become a professional musician until she was 67 years old, she had composed folk songs and played the guitar and banjo as a child. By approximately eight years of age Cotten, then Elizabeth Nevills, taught herself how to play the banjo. Practicing on her brother's banjo, she created a style of guitar playing that, half a century later, was imitated by many guitarists across America. As Kristin Baggelaar and Donald Milton remarked in Folk Music: More Than a Song, "Libba Cotten's bass runs are used frequently by other guitarists, and her basic picking styles have become standard patterns for folk guitar." At age 11 she composed the classic folk song "Freight Train." Copyrights to the song, however, were not secured to her until 1957, some 50 years after its original composition. By age 14 she had collected a generous array of rag and dance tunes, some of which she had composed herself.
From approximately the ages of 12 to 15, Elizabeth worked as a housekeeper for neighbors in her hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a position she would hold on and off for most of her life. She earned 75 cents a month. When she had enough money saved, she bought her first guitar, a Sears & Roebuck Stella demonstrator guitar for $3.75, and kept her family up nights as she practiced religiously. Urged by the Baptist Church, however, to give up music and attend to more serious and appropriate activities for a young African American woman of her time, Elizabeth abandoned her guitar and took a walk down the aisle.
The Domestic Life
Elizabeth Nevills married Frank Cotten in February of 1910 when she was 15 years old and had one child, a daughter, Lillie, by the time she was 16. She, Frank, and Lillie frequently moved between Chapel Hill, Washington, D.C., and New York City for Frank's business. They finally settled in New York City as a family where Frank eventually owned his own business. During this time Elizabeth held a string of odd jobs, mainly housekeeping and some work in a furniture store. The marriage was not a lasting one, however. As soon as their daughter married, Elizabeth and Frank Cotten divorced, and Elizabeth moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her daughter, and eventually grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In Washington, D.C., in late 1940s, Elizabeth Cotten worked in a popular downtown department store called Lansburgh's before the holidays. Elizabeth worked on the fifth floor where dolls were sold. One day a woman came to the store with her two daughters and bought some dolls from Elizabeth. The woman was Ruth Crawford Seeger, a noted music teacher and composer of folk songs and her husband, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist. As the dolls were being packaged, one of the little girls, Peggy Seeger, wandered away from her mother and sister. Elizabeth found the little lost girl and returned her to her mother. Ever grateful to her, Mrs. Seeger offered Elizabeth a job as her family's Saturday housekeeper. Shortly after her encounter with Ruth Seeger, Elizabeth quit her sales position at Lansburgh's and accepted Mrs. Seeger's offer. Elizabeth worked for the Seegers and remained friends with them for many years.
A Musical Maid
The Seeger household provided fertile ground for Elizabeth's musical talent to take root and grow. It was in the Seeger home that Elizabeth Cotten, besides ironing and baking bread, developed her craft as a musician. Ruth Seeger was in the process of compiling a selection of folksongs for children and teaching her own children, Mike, Peggy, and Penny, about folk music when Elizabeth joined the family. "Libba," Peggy's childhood nickname for Elizabeth, learned along with the kids. Elizabeth practiced on Peggy's guitar, fooled around with the chords every chance she got, and sang out a few tunes to accompany the music, often in the kitchen with the door closed. One Saturday, while the Seegers were practicing their music and singing together, "Libba" casually announced that she used to play the guitar. The Seegers, thus, first heard "Freight Train" in their own home.
The significance and subsequent popularity of "Freight Train" can be traced to its beginnings. The railroad train, explained Ed Badeaux in Sing Out, "[from] its very first beginnings …, became a symbol of freedom and adventure to America's common folk." As a small child, Elizabeth and her brothers, not unlike the Seegers, would gather together, play the guitar and/or banjo, and compose their own songs. "Freight Train" was one song Elizabeth composed entirely by herself and, as Badeaux quoted Mike Seeger, " 'was largely inspired by the train running near her [childhood] home.' " The popular 1960s and 1970s folksinging group, Peter, Paul, and Mary, performed and recorded their own version of "Freight Train" which became an American hit in 1963.
A Second Career
After approximately ten years with the Seegers, in 1959, at age 67, Elizabeth Cotten performed professionally for the first time. She and Mike Seeger conducted a joint concert together, the first for both of them. "Libba" and Mike would perform together in coffee houses and at folk festivals throughout their careers as musicians. She would accompany him and his band the "New Lost City Ramblers." In turn, he would open shows for her, tune her instruments; they performed as a team.
Peggy Seeger also figured prominently in Elizabeth's development as a recognized musician. In 1957 Peggy took "Freight Train" to Europe as the popularity of folk music returned and made the song a hit abroad. Much to her regret, though, Peggy allowed some English gentlemen to tape her performance of the song, and they unfortunately later took full credit for composition of the song. As Ed Badeaux noted, "the rights to a song are oftentimes unfortunately a matter of public domain versus individual ownership. Vocalists perform and record other people's songs all of the time. Without proper documentation, it is almost impossible for a composer to protect his/her work from theft. Fortunately for Elizabeth Cotten, though, due to growing enforcement of copyright laws in the late 1950s, she was eventually rightfully credited with composition of the classic song."
From 1957, at 65 years of age, until her death in 1987 at age 95, Elizabeth Cotten recorded approximately six albums, performed live, and toured widely. She recorded her first solo album, Negro Folk Songs and Tunes, in 1957 for Folkways Records. Three other of her more well known albums are Elizabeth Cotten, Volume II: Shake Sugaree, 1967, Elizabeth Cotten Volume III: When I'm Gone, 1975, and Elizabeth Cotten Live!, 1983, for which she won a 1985 Grammy award. She was well into her seventies when she toured America with the popular blues singer, Taj Mahal. In the last 20 years of her life she performed at universities, music halls, and folk festivals across America, by which time she was a great-grandmother. She also performed on television and visited school children nationwide as involvement for projects sponsored by the National Endowment For The Arts. In 1978 she performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the most prestigious concert hall for musicians in the world. At 90 years of age she started a National Tour in 1983 called Folk City. The tour began in New York City where she opened with Mike Seeger.
A Legendary Musician
Though born poor and black in the late 1800s, at a time when racial prejudice was very much alive in America and with only a fourth grade education, Elizabeth Cotten nonetheless became a highly respected musician. "There's no one like her … that was ever recorded," Mike Seeger had told Jon Pareles of the New York Times in 1983 at the opening of his and Elizabeth's National Folk City tour. Her distinctive "Cotten-Style" of playing the guitar, coupled with her simple, sincere love for guitar and song, made her a beloved personality in folk music.
A Burl Ives Awardee in 1972 for her vital role in folk music, a Grammy Award in 1985 for her album Elizabeth Cotten Live!, deemed best ethnic or traditional folk recording that year, and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment For The Arts, 1984, have secured her a place in American folk music history. "Libba had," said Ed Badeaux "what most of us can only strive for—a rich musical heritage and the ability to express that heritage beautifully through her playing." Her turn-of-the-century parlor music, a mixture of gospel, ragtime, and blues, was truly music composed, played, and sung from the heart.
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