Biographical Info: Elizabeth Cotten
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Elizabeth Cotten (Selected Biographical Info)
- Elizabeth Cotten was a wonderful guitarist and songwriter who was
housekeeper for the Seegers (Pete, Mike, Peggy etc. and parents) and who
wrote the song "Freight Train." 
- I was able to see Miss Elizabeth Cotton perform a few times. She usually
told her audience that when she was very young, her brother played an
instrument. He would not let her play, but when he was out, she would
take it from under his bed and play. Since he was right-handed and she
left-handed, she learned to play upside-down. I say "an instrument"
because my memory tells me that brother played the banjo, and her
learning to play on that was responsible for the picking style she
displayed later on guitar. 
- Dylan follows her recorded version (from an old Folkways LP) pretty
straight (although Cotton lets her niece do the vocals on that recording
while Cotton plays guitar). 
- 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
- "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
- 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.
 posted by Nancy Cassel
 posted by Wayland Massey
 written by Bob Hudson; posted by TIMHRK