Versatile folk/blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Elizabeth Cotten (1892-1987)—creator of the classic song "Freight Train"—performed in concert for the first time at age 67 and won a Grammy Award in 1985 at age 93.
American folk and blues musician Elizabeth Cotten, composer of the folk song classic "Freight Train" and recipient of a 1985 Grammy Award at age 93, began her career in music at an age when most people prepare for retirement. At 67 years of age Cotten, known as "Libba" by the folksinging Seeger family who discovered her talent, performed live in concert for the first time. A former maid, this versatile musician was also a songwriter and guitarist. Legendary for strumming left-handed on a guitar designed for right-handers, rather than reverse the strings she would play the guitar backwards, "pick[ing] with her left hand and chord[ing] with her right," wrote Martin F. Kohn of the Detroit Free Press. Playing the guitar and banjo, using "two-finger" and "three-finger" stylings, became her musical signature. This "Cotten style" of playing the guitar has made her one of the "finest fingerpickers on record," noted a contributor for Guitar Player magazine.
Though "Libba" Cotten had not become a professional musician until she was 67 years old, she had composed folk songs and played the guitar and banjo as a child. By approximately eight years of age Cotten, then Elizabeth Nevills, taught herself how to play the banjo. Practicing on her brother's banjo, she created a style of guitar playing that, half a century later, was imitated by many guitarists across America. As Kristin Baggelaar and Donald Milton remarked in Folk Music: More Than a Song, "Libba Cotten's bass runs are used frequently by other guitarists, and her basic picking styles have become standard patterns for folk guitar." At age 11 she composed the classic folk song "Freight Train." Copyrights to the song, however, were not secured to her until 1957, some 50 years after its original composition. By age 14 she had collected a generous array of rag and dance tunes, some of which she had composed herself.
From approximately the ages of 12 to 15, Elizabeth worked as a housekeeper for neighbors in her hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a position she would hold on and off for most of her life. She earned 75 cents a month. When she had enough money saved, she bought her first guitar, a Sears & Roebuck Stella demonstrator guitar for $3.75, and kept her family up nights as she practiced religiously. Urged by the Baptist Church, however, to give up music and attend to more serious and appropriate activities for a young African American woman of her time, Elizabeth abandoned her guitar and took a walk down the aisle.
The Domestic Life
Elizabeth Nevills married Frank Cotten in February of 1910 when she was 15 years old and had one child, a daughter, Lillie, by the time she was 16. She, Frank, and Lillie frequently moved between Chapel Hill, Washington, D.C., and New York City for Frank's business. They finally settled in New York City as a family where Frank eventually owned his own business. During this time Elizabeth held a string of odd jobs, mainly housekeeping and some work in a furniture store. The marriage was not a lasting one, however. As soon as their daughter married, Elizabeth and Frank Cotten divorced, and Elizabeth moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her daughter, and eventually grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In Washington, D.C., in late 1940s, Elizabeth Cotten worked in a popular downtown department store called Lansburgh's before the holidays. Elizabeth worked on the fifth floor where dolls were sold. One day a woman came to the store with her two daughters and bought some dolls from Elizabeth. The woman was Ruth Crawford Seeger, a noted music teacher and composer of folk songs and her husband, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist. As the dolls were being packaged, one of the little girls, Peggy Seeger, wandered away from her mother and sister. Elizabeth found the little lost girl and returned her to her mother. Ever grateful to her, Mrs. Seeger offered Elizabeth a job as her family's Saturday housekeeper. Shortly after her encounter with Ruth Seeger, Elizabeth quit her sales position at Lansburgh's and accepted Mrs. Seeger's offer. Elizabeth worked for the Seegers and remained friends with them for many years.
A Musical Maid
The Seeger household provided fertile ground for Elizabeth's musical talent to take root and grow. It was in the Seeger home that Elizabeth Cotten, besides ironing and baking bread, developed her craft as a musician. Ruth Seeger was in the process of compiling a selection of folksongs for children and teaching her own children, Mike, Peggy, and Penny, about folk music when Elizabeth joined the family. "Libba," Peggy's childhood nickname for Elizabeth, learned along with the kids. Elizabeth practiced on Peggy's guitar, fooled around with the chords every chance she got, and sang out a few tunes to accompany the music, often in the kitchen with the door closed. One Saturday, while the Seegers were practicing their music and singing together, "Libba" casually announced that she used to play the guitar. The Seegers, thus, first heard "Freight Train" in their own home.
The significance and subsequent popularity of "Freight Train" can be traced to its beginnings. The railroad train, explained Ed Badeaux in Sing Out, "[from] its very first beginnings …, became a symbol of freedom and adventure to America's common folk." As a small child, Elizabeth and her brothers, not unlike the Seegers, would gather together, play the guitar and/or banjo, and compose their own songs. "Freight Train" was one song Elizabeth composed entirely by herself and, as Badeaux quoted Mike Seeger, " 'was largely inspired by the train running near her [childhood] home.' " The popular 1960s and 1970s folksinging group, Peter, Paul, and Mary, performed and recorded their own version of "Freight Train" which became an American hit in 1963.
A Second Career
After approximately ten years with the Seegers, in 1959, at age 67, Elizabeth Cotten performed professionally for the first time. She and Mike Seeger conducted a joint concert together, the first for both of them. "Libba" and Mike would perform together in coffee houses and at folk festivals throughout their careers as musicians. She would accompany him and his band the "New Lost City Ramblers." In turn, he would open shows for her, tune her instruments; they performed as a team.
Peggy Seeger also figured prominently in Elizabeth's development as a recognized musician. In 1957 Peggy took "Freight Train" to Europe as the popularity of folk music returned and made the song a hit abroad. Much to her regret, though, Peggy allowed some English gentlemen to tape her performance of the song, and they unfortunately later took full credit for composition of the song. As Ed Badeaux noted, "the rights to a song are oftentimes unfortunately a matter of public domain versus individual ownership. Vocalists perform and record other people's songs all of the time. Without proper documentation, it is almost impossible for a composer to protect his/her work from theft. Fortunately for Elizabeth Cotten, though, due to growing enforcement of copyright laws in the late 1950s, she was eventually rightfully credited with composition of the classic song."
From 1957, at 65 years of age, until her death in 1987 at age 95, Elizabeth Cotten recorded approximately six albums, performed live, and toured widely. She recorded her first solo album, Negro Folk Songs and Tunes, in 1957 for Folkways Records. Three other of her more well known albums are Elizabeth Cotten, Volume II: Shake Sugaree, 1967, Elizabeth Cotten Volume III: When I'm Gone, 1975, and Elizabeth Cotten Live!, 1983, for which she won a 1985 Grammy award. She was well into her seventies when she toured America with the popular blues singer, Taj Mahal. In the last 20 years of her life she performed at universities, music halls, and folk festivals across America, by which time she was a great-grandmother. She also performed on television and visited school children nationwide as involvement for projects sponsored by the National Endowment For The Arts. In 1978 she performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the most prestigious concert hall for musicians in the world. At 90 years of age she started a National Tour in 1983 called Folk City. The tour began in New York City where she opened with Mike Seeger.
A Legendary Musician
Though born poor and black in the late 1800s, at a time when racial prejudice was very much alive in America and with only a fourth grade education, Elizabeth Cotten nonetheless became a highly respected musician. "There's no one like her … that was ever recorded," Mike Seeger had told Jon Pareles of the New York Times in 1983 at the opening of his and Elizabeth's National Folk City tour. Her distinctive "Cotten-Style" of playing the guitar, coupled with her simple, sincere love for guitar and song, made her a beloved personality in folk music.
A Burl Ives Awardee in 1972 for her vital role in folk music, a Grammy Award in 1985 for her album Elizabeth Cotten Live!, deemed best ethnic or traditional folk recording that year, and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment For The Arts, 1984, have secured her a place in American folk music history. "Libba had," said Ed Badeaux "what most of us can only strive for—a rich musical heritage and the ability to express that heritage beautifully through her playing." Her turn-of-the-century parlor music, a mixture of gospel, ragtime, and blues, was truly music composed, played, and sung from the heart.
Further Reading on Elizabeth Cotten
Baggelaar, Kristin, and Donald Milton, Folk Music: More Than a Song, Crowell, 1976.
"For These 'Youngsters' Life Begins at 80," in Ebony, February 1981, p. 62.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who's Who, Da Capo Press, 1979.
Lanker, Brian, I Dream A World, Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1989, pp. 156-57.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sudie, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Macmillan Press, 1986, p. 515.
"Ordinary Women of Grace: Subjects of the I Dream a World Photography Exhibit," in U.S. News & World Report, February 13, 1989, p. 55.
Southern, Eileen, Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians, Greenwood Press, 1982, pp. 85-86.
Lawless, Ray M., Folksingers and Folksongs in America, 2nd edition, 1965, pp. 504, 682-683.
Silber, Irwin, and Fred Silber, Folksingers' Wordbook, Oak Publications, p. 63.
"Blues With A Feeling," in Guitar Player, November 1994, p. 152.
"Elizabeth Cotten at 90, Bigger Than The Tradition," in New York Times, January 7, 1983, January 9, 1983, June 30, 1987.
"Elizabeth Cotten, 95, Noted Folk Singer, Dies," in Jet, August 17, 1987, p. 18.
Badeaux, Ed, "Please Don't Tell What Train I'm On," in Sing Out, September 1964, pp. 7-11.
"Life Begins at 71 For N.Y. Domestic," in Detroit Courier, December 25, 1967.
Kohn, Martin F., "The Freight Train lady brings her songs to town," in Detroit Free Press, March 21, 1977.
Gerrard, Alice, "Libba Cotten," in Frets 2, January 1980, pp. 26-29.
Reisner, Mel, "Maid Finally Wins Grammy," in The Indianapolis Star, September 1, 1985.
Lane, Bill, "Past 80 and Still Singing: Octogenarians Sippie Wallace, Elizabeth Cotten, & Alberta Hunter Don't Let Age Hold Them Back," in SEPIA, December 1980.