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Elizabeth Cotten

(Selected Biographical Info)

Excerpts from "Elizabeth 'Libba' Cotten" - Notable Black American Women - pg. 231-34:

Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (1892 - 1987)

The composer of such classics as "Freight Train" and "Washington Blues," whose unique style of guitar playing was imitated by many, worked many years as a domestic servant before being discovered by Pete Seeger and hailed as an important artist of the folk revival.

Cotten’s was a musical family. She sang at home with her mother, and her uncles played fiddle and banjo. Although she would have preferred to learn to play the organ and piano, the first instrument she learned to play was the banjo, because her brother owned one. She recalled learning to play it when he was at work:

Times when my brother’d go to work, I’d grab his banjo and turn the pegs and try to play it. Always ended up breakin’ the strings. After dinner that night he’d roll a cigarette and go to get his banjo. I’d head for the bedroom and hide under the bed. There’d be a silence, then I’d hear him say, very quietly to himself, "She done it again." But he never would get after me to my face. (Chalmers 65).

Cotten quit school when she was eleven years old to earn money to buy a guitar.

Although Cotten’s two brothers played and her sister chorded, none of them knew formal music:

They didn’t know nothin’ about no music. They just played, like all country people get together and play songs. I learn yours and you learn mine and just keep on like that. But I didn’t even have that much chance when I was learning. Nobody to help me to play. (Gerrard, 28).

What distinguished Cotten’s guitar-style is that she played left-handed on a guitar strung for right-handers. According to Eileen Southern , Cotten "did not reverse the strings but turned the guitar upside down with the bass strings on the bottom" (86).

Cotten explained how she acquired this "Cotten" style:

I had learned a banjo upside down and I couldn’t change [the strings] because it belonged to my brother. Then when I bought the guitar, so much was said like, "You better change the stings, you can’t play it left-handed," that they was changed as much as two or three times. And I could not play it. I couldn’t play it, I couldn’t tune it, I couldn’t do anything with it. So I just sat down and took all the strings off, then I put ‘em back on the old way and I stopped askin’. I started playing, learning different little tunes on it. I’d get one little string and then add another little string to it and get a little sound, then start playing.

"I banged that guitar all day and I banged it all night so nobody could sleep," Cotten recalled. "Nobody helped me. I give myself credit for everything I learned" (Chalmers 65).

Cotten made her professional debut with Mike Seeger at a concert at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College in 1959. She was sixty-seven years old. From that time to her death, Cotten was a professional folk artist and a part of a steadily increasing movement toward folk music appreciation. Bob Groom [in The Blues Revival] notes that by 1964, Cotten had appeared at the Newport Folk Festival with such notables as John Hurt, John Estes, Muddy Waters, and Otis Spann.

She cut her first solo album, Negro Fold Songs and Tunes, in 1957, for Folkways. She also recorded on Folkways:

Elizabeth Cotten, Volume II: Shake Sugaree (1967)
Elizabeth Cotten, Volume III: When I’m Gone (1975)
Elizabeth Cotten Live! (1983)

She also appeared in Pete Seeger’s videotape "Rainbow Quest" as well as in the Grass Roots Series videotape "Old Time Music," (1974), and on PBS-TV’s "Me and Stella," (1977).

Cotten’s most famous song, "Freight Train," has an interesting history. Composed by Cotten at the age of eleven, it has, according to Pete Seeger, "gone around the world" (308). The song, often attributed to other performers, was first recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary in the early 1960s. Peggy Seeger also performed the song, and according to Groom, the version The Vipers and the Chas. McDermitt Skiffle Group performed as "Freight Train Blues" they received through Peggy Seeger (28). Court action was required in order for Cotten to secure the copyright for the song, an it was not until 1957 that she was granted the rights.

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[1] posted by Nancy Cassel
[2] posted by Wayland Massey
[3] written by Bob Hudson; posted by TIMHRK