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.
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 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.
Cotten'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."
by Ed Decker
Elizabeth Cotten's Career
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.
Elizabeth Cotten's 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.
- Selective Works
- Elizabeth Cotten (now retitled Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes), Folkways, 1957.
- Elizabeth Cotten Volume 2: Shake Sugaree, Folkways, 1967.
- Elizabeth Cotten Volume 3: When I'm Gone, Folkways, 1975.
- Elizabeth Cotten Live!, Arhoolie, 1985.
- Selected compositions "Freight Train."
- "Washington Blues."
- "Shake, Sugaree."
- "Oh Babe, It Ain't No Lie."
- Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume 1, Guinness Publishing, 1992.
- Santelli, Robert, The Big Book of Blues, Penguin, 1993.
- Sandberg, Larry, and Dick Weissman, The Folk Music Sourcebook, New, Updated Edition, Da Capo, 1989.
- Smith, Jessie Carney, editor, Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
- Periodicals Acoustic Guitar, January/February 1995.
- New York Times, June 30, 1987.
- Syracuse Herald-Journal, June 29, 1995.
- The Washingtonian, March 1989.
- U.S. News & World Report, February 13, 1989.