January 5, 1893|
Carrboro, North Carolina, United States
|Died||June 29, 1987
Syracuse, New York, United States
Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (née Nevills) (January 5, 1893 - June 29, 1987) was an American blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter.
A self-taught left-handed guitarist, Cotten developed her own original style. She played a guitar strung for a right-handed player, but played it upside down, as she was left-handed. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style has become known as "Cotten picking".
Cotten was born in 1893 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to a musical family. Her parents were George Nevill (also spelled Nevills) and Louisa (or Louise) Price Nevill. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. At age seven, she began to play her older brother's banjo. By the age of eight, she was playing songs. At the age of 11, after scraping together some money as a domestic helper, she bought her own guitar. The guitar, a Sears and Roebuck brand instrument, cost $3.75. Although self-taught, she became proficient at playing the instrument. By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, "Freight Train", became one of her most recognized. She wrote the song in remembrance of a nearby train that she could hear from her childhood home. The 1956 UK recording of the song by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey was a major hit and is credited as one of the main influences on the rise of skiffle in the UK.
Around the age of 13, Cotten began working as a maid along with her mother. On November 7, 1910, at the age of 17, she married Frank Cotten. The couple had a daughter, Lillie, and soon after Elizabeth gave up guitar playing for family and church. Elizabeth, Frank and their daughter Lillie moved around the eastern United States for a number of years, between North Carolina, New York City, and Washington, D.C., finally settling in the D.C. area. When Lillie married, Elizabeth divorced Frank and moved in with her daughter and her family.
Cotten retired from playing the guitar for 25 years, except for occasional church performances. She did not begin performing publicly and recording until she was in her 60s. She was discovered by the folk-singing Seeger family while she was working for them as a housekeeper.
While working briefly in a department store, Cotten helped a child wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Peggy Seeger, and the mother was the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Soon after this, Cotten again began working as a maid for Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger and caring for their children, Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny. While working with the Seegers (a voraciously musical family that included Pete Seeger, a son of Charles from a previous marriage) she remembered her own guitar playing from 40 years prior and picked up the instrument again and relearned to play it, almost from scratch.
In the later half of the 1950s, Mike Seeger began making bedroom reel-to-reel recordings of Cotten's songs in her house. These recordings later became the album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, which was released by Folkways Records. Since the release of that album, her songs, especially her signature song, "Freight Train"--which she wrote when she was 11--have been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joe Dassin, Joan Baez, Devendra Banhart, Laura Gibson, Laura Veirs, His Name Is Alive, Doc Watson, Taj Mahal, Geoff Farina, and Country Teasers. Shortly after that first album, she began playing concerts with Mike Seeger, the first of which was in 1960 at Swarthmore College.
In the early 1960s, Cotten went on to play concerts with some of the big names in the burgeoning folk revival. Some of these included Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.
The newfound interest in her work inspired her to write more songs to perform, and in 1967 she released a record created with her grandchildren, which took its name from one of her songs, "Shake Sugaree". The song featured a 12-year-old Brenda Joyce Evans, Cotten's great-grandchild, and future Undisputed Truth singer.
Using profits from her touring, record releases, and awards given to her for her own contributions to the folk arts, Cotten was able to move with her daughter and grandchildren from Washington, D.C., and buy a house in Syracuse, New York. She was also able to continue touring and releasing records well into her 80s. In 1984, she won the Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, for the album Elizabeth Cotten Live, released by Arhoolie Records. When accepting the award in Los Angeles, her comment was, "Thank you. I only wish I had my guitar so I could play a song for you all." In 1989, Cotten was one of 75 influential African-American women included in the photo documentary I Dream a World.
Cotten died in June 1987, at Crouse-Irving Hospital in Syracuse, New York, at the age of 94.
Cotten began writing music while toying with her older brother's banjo. She was left-handed, so she played the banjo in reverse position. Later, when she transferred her songs to the guitar, she formed a unique style, since on the banjo the uppermost string is not a bass string, but a short, high-pitched string which begins at the fifth fret. This required her to adopt a unique style for the guitar. She first played with the "all finger down strokes" like a banjo. Later, her playing evolved into a unique style of fingerpicking. Her signature alternating bass style is now known as "Cotten picking". Her fingerpicking techniques influenced many other musicians.