Cotten, Elizabeth (c. 1893–1987)
Cotten, Elizabeth (c. 1893–1987)
African-American folk singer and composer—known for her composition "Freight Train" and her left-handed, upside-down guitar picking—who began performing at age 60. Name variations: Libba Cotten; Elizabeth Cotton; Sis Nevilles. Born in early January 4 (or 5), 1893 or 1895, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; died on June 29, 1987, in Syracuse, New York; daughter of George Nevilles (or Nevills, a miner and mill worker) and Louisa Price Nevilles (a cook, launderer, and midwife); married Frank Cotten, around 1910; children: daughter, Lillie (or Lily).
Taught herself banjo and guitar on her brother's instruments around age seven; left school at age nine; bought a guitar with own money at about age 12; was a domestic worker until she retired at age 70; after moving to Washington, D.C. (1940s), met the Seeger family and began working in their home; encouraged by Seegers, began to perform publicly (late 1950s); "Freight Train," composed at age 11 or 12, became popular during the folk-music revival period and a lawsuit was required for her to get credit and royalties; recorded several folk-music albums and appeared at many colleges, festivals and clubs (1958–80s); received Burl Ives Award from National Folk Festival Association (1972), National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, and several honors from the city of Syracuse, including city's first "Living Treasure"; was oldest person honored with Grammy Award, for Elizabeth Cotten Live! (1984/85?); included among 75 influential African-American women in photo documentary I Dream a World. Famous songs, in addition to "Freight Train," are "Shake, Sugaree," "Oh, Babe, It Ain't No Lie," "I'm Going Away," and "Washington Blues."
George and Louisa Price Nevilles did not give their newest child a formal name when she was born in early January 1895 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Around the house, she was known as Babe, Sis, or sometimes Short. On her first day of school, when the teacher asked if she had a name, she answered: "Yes, Elizabeth." Later in life, she told an interviewer, "I don't know if I'd ever heard the name, but I had to say something!" The name became her own.
Raised as farmers, both her parents had moved to Chapel Hill before Elizabeth's birth. George was a laborer, usually working in the mines or mills around the area; Louisa was a launderer, cook, and midwife. Elizabeth and her siblings did chores together and roamed the area near their home. As they worked and played, the children made up songs. "Freight Train," known to her family and friends as "Elizabeth's song," would later become identified with her in folk-music annals.
Composed when she was 11 or 12 as one of these "makeup songs," "Freight Train" invoked the spirit of the three-coach train that went by her home en route to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "We kids be always goin' watchin' that train," she remembered. "We'd get sheets and wave. You couldn't see faces, just handkerchiefs wavin' back. The train'd be so loaded with students it'd get stuck. It had to go up a little hill and it'd stall and have to wait for another engine to come push it." When a freight train hauling furniture took to the route, the same problems occurred. Cotten recalled the "chug-a, chug-a, chug-a, chug-a" sound of the train as it went by the house and "the clanking of the cars as they went up the hill."
In spite of the danger, or maybe because of it, train tracks were a popular playground. "We used to go over to the railroad track and play," Cotten said. "We used to watch the train come in … and I always wanted a train ride, I just wanted to know how did it feel. Just a level ride. [The ticket agent] says to me, 'Do you all want a little ride?' And that was exactly what we was going after. So he put us on the coach and that's when they backed up and shifted around. Take one off and put one on. Well, I got that little ride. And I got to ride on the freight train, too." After the ride, said Cotten, "me and my brother, we'd have to do the night work. We'd cut wood and sing. We would each have a song, he had his and I had mine. We used to sing about trains. That was the beginning of me writing 'Freight Train,' right along then."
In addition to the train tracks, the university—the main business of Chapel Hill—was also a center of activity and interest. Each year, even those who had no one graduating would dress up and go downtown to celebrate. "[T]hey'd buy their children little new slippers … dresses … hats … going to the commencement," Cotten reminisced. The graduates "would have a beautiful march," she continued. "If there would be room they would let us in but there was never no room. So we used to hang in the window. I didn't, but my brothers did, just to get to see them march in." At the university commencement ceremonies, young Elizabeth learned another tune, "Graduation March," that she arranged for guitar. When the graduates marched in, "they'd play that band song that I pick on the guitar; that's what they'd march to."
Cotten's brothers and sisters, all of whom could play instruments and sing, made fiddles out of corn cobs, played on a comb through paper, and used mouth harps. "At Christmas," she recalled, "we'd go serenadin' folks, and sometimes they'd give us a apple or a drink of locust beer. We used to make up songs ourselves and see who can do it fastest." Her older brother sang and played his banjo when he came in at night. By listening to him, Cotten learned the tunes and how to pick the strings. Despite the obstacle of being left-handed (at that time, all string instruments were built to be played in right-handed fashion), she had created her own style for playing and could pick out popular tunes on the banjo by the time she was seven.
When her brother bought a guitar, he put it under the bed to hide it from her, but Cotten soon found it and would sneak the instrument out to practice when he was gone: sometimes a broken string gave her away. Playing and learning tunes became almost as important to her as eating, as Cotten taught herself the left-handed picking pattern she later became famous for.
The first thing I'd do, I laid the guitar flat in my lap and worked my left hand till I could play the strings backwards and forwards. And then after I got so I could do that, then I started to chord it and get the sound of a song that I know. And if it weren't but one string I'd get that. Then finally I'd add another string to that, and keep on till I could work my fingers pretty good. And that's how I started playing with two fingers. And after I started playing with two fingers for a while, I started using three. I was just trying to see what I could do. I never had any lessons, nobody to teach me anything. I just picked it up.
Cotten only needed to hear a song once to pick out the tune on the guitar or banjo. Chapel Hill had many musicians, so she had ample opportunity to hear the folk songs of the region. When strumming with her brothers, she played melody while one brother played bass and the other chords. They made music for family and friends.
Like many African-American children of her era, Elizabeth Cotten had to leave school to begin working. By age 9, she was a day worker and live-in helper in the Chapel Hill area. At 12, she was earning one dollar per month, "carrying wood and minding children for a Chapel Hill family." Her mother saved the money and bought her a guitar that cost four months' wages.
She was a creative songster and musician, a smooth, subtle instrumentalist, and possessed a very special grace which she communicated so well to her friends and public audience.
When she was a young teenager, Elizabeth "got religion," as she put it, and joined the Baptist church. There she was told she could no longer play the songs she'd grown up with: "The Deacon … told me, 'You got to stop and serve God.' Sometimes I played them, but I weaned myself away." From then until age 58, she played guitar only occasionally, in church. When she was 15, she married Frank Cotten and had a daughter whom she named Lillie. Elizabeth worked as a cook and housekeeper in Chapel Hill with one sojourn in New York City.
In the early 1940s, when Cotten was in her 40s, she moved to Washington, D.C., to be near her daughter and grandchildren. She continued working as a housekeeper and had a seasonal job at Lansburgh's department store. Near Christmas, folk-song scholar Ruth Crawford (Seeger) was shopping at Lansburgh's, with her baby and young daughter Peggy Seeger in tow. When Peggy wandered away from her mother, a search was launched and Cotten found her. "She was crying so hard," said Cotten. Ruth liked Elizabeth immediately and offered her a job as housekeeper and cook for the Seeger family, which included Peggy's siblings, Mike, Barbara and Penny Seeger , and their father, ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. It was Penny who nicknamed Cotten "Libba"; "Elizabeth" was too much to say. Cotten would remain with them for a decade, helping the family through Ruth Seeger's illness and death from cancer in 1953.
Some years after Cotten began working for the Seegers, Peggy discovered their housekeeper playing the guitar. "I didn't say word," recalled Cotten. "I didn't know how she'd feel about it. I was playing her guitar.… 'Well,' she said, 'what were you playing?' I said, '"Freight Train."' So she said, 'Play it for me,' and I sang and played 'Freight Train.' And that's the beginning, how they learned I could play a guitar." That day, Mike Seeger returned from school and learned Cotten's secret. Said Mike: "It was one of those rare moments. Peggy said, 'Did you know Libba could play?' or something like that. We went into the music room and she played 'In the Sweet Bye and Bye,' which is a church song. She played it first in the very four-square church manner and then … there was a brief pause and … she played it in the ragtime style. And it was incredible, a cross between a classical parlor style and blues, which is what I think makes her music so charming; it's sparse and reserved but also just a little bit loose."
Intrigued by her upside-down, two-finger playing style, the children made deals to clear the table, wash the dishes, and do other house work so that Cotten would play for them. Peggy and Mike were blossoming as folk singers themselves and listened avidly to Cotten's repertoire of songs.
In 1957, Peggy Seeger performed "Freight Train" on a tour of Europe. While in England, she allowed a recording of the song and thus unwittingly promoted its commercial debut at the beginning of the great folk-song boom. The tune was popularized in England by Nancy Whiskey but no mention was given of a composer. Cotten first knew of the liberties taken when she heard her song on television. "I was sitting at home one night and … they announced Nancy Whiskey was going to sing it. When I heard it," she continued, "I said, 'That's my song.' I felt terrible 'bout it. Everybody knew it was my song." Although the Seeger children helped her get a settlement for the unacknowledged recordings, Cotten felt she would never get the same monetary compensation others received from the song. By the early 1980s, over 25 recordings of the song had been made by different singers, including Rusty Draper , Peter, Paul and Mary, Peter and Gordon, Dick and DeeDee, and Cotten herself. Pete Seeger, older half-brother of Peggy and Mike, recorded the song, and guitarists added "Freight Train" to their repertoires. Later, it was recorded by country music performers like Chet Atkins, Jimmy Dean, and Jim and Jesse (the latter set new words to Cotten's tune). In 1974, Cotten was an invited witness at the Senate's hearings on the American Folklife Preservation Act. Performing "Freight Train," she had senators and onlookers joining the singing.
Elizabeth Cotten began her own performance and recording career after the misadventure with "Freight Train." In 1957 and 1958, Mike Seeger taped Cotten singing at her home in Washington, D.C. The first album was released in 1958 by the Smithsonian's Folkways Recordings and led to bookings. Her first concert appearance was shared with Mike Seeger at Swarthmore College in 1960. The following year, Cotten was one of several amateur musicians who appeared at the first University of Chicago Folk Festival. Traveling across the United States and Canada, Cotten appeared on college campuses, at festivals, and in clubs, coffee houses and auditoriums. Interest in her music inspired further remembrances of folk songs from her youth and the composition of new ones, aided by her great-grandchildren. Most of the latter songs were included on her second album from Folkways, Shake Sugaree.
Cotten developed her own stage persona, using the name "Libba." She would play her music, tell about her life while continuing to pick background music, then urge audiences to sing along. "Libba Cotten, seventy-two years old and black, got a standing ovation from 3,000 white students at Duke University in March," wrote a proud Peter Seeger. How she performed "broke all the rules of show business." The album Elizabeth Cotten Live, for which she won a Grammy, exemplifies her stage programs from the early 1980s. Yet another album, Folkways' When I'm Gone, contains more of her older songs as well as songs she learned on the concert circuit.
Cotten's unusual method of playing guitar or banjo produced the unique sound for which she was renowned. She had several styles of playing on both guitar and banjo, but is best known for her adaptation of the southeastern country ragtime picking, also known as single string guitar picking. "Freight Train" is played in this style, which was a great influence on the next generation of folk singers such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez . Mike Seeger noted that "a lot of guitar picking where you play a bass chord and some kind of melody goes back to the influence of Elizabeth Cotten."
Around 1970, Elizabeth Cotten retired from domestic service. Although she had appeared with some frequency at musical events in the '60s and '70s, she did not begin touring regularly until the late '70s when John Ullman, of Traditional Arts Services, began handling her bookings. By 1978, she had done well enough to purchase a house in Syracuse, New York, to be near her family. In addition to recordings and personal appearances, she was also featured in a 1974 video, Grass Roots Series #1—Old Time Music, and appeared on the syndicated PBS television program "Me and Stella" in 1977.
Several honors came Cotten's way in her 80s and early 90s. She received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, and several tributes from the city of Syracuse. She was also included among the 75 influential African-American women in the photo documentary I Dream a World. In 1993, Cotten was listed among "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century" by Musician magazine.
"She was warm, solid in her identity and belief," wrote Mike Seeger. "She was my friend and teacher as we travelled and played music together. She will always be warmly remembered by all of us whom she touched." Elizabeth Cotten continued to do live shows until May 1987, just weeks before her death. She died in Syracuse on June 29, 1987, after a short hospitalization that included surgery after brain seizures. A few years before, she had told an interviewer: "Every time my agent sends me, I'm ready to go. I'm not going to retire till I get so I can't use my singing or my guitar strings."
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More information about Elizabeth Cotten, as well as American folk songs and folksingers, may be found at the Office of Folklife Programs of the Smithsonian Institution, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 2600, Washington, D.C. 20560.
Margaret L. Meggs , writer of essays, articles and short stories about women's lives, teaches women's studies in college and continuing education courses