Libba Cotten's Guitar

Left-handed, she taught herself to play, wrote the folk classic "Freight Train" and sang into her 90s

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This worn guitar has some curious scratch marks around the sound hole, the result of its owner’s distinctive way of playing. She was left-handed but always played a regular right-handed guitar, strumming it upside down.

The woman famous for that fingering style was Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten — a folksinger best known for the song “Freight Train,” written in 1904 when she was just 11 years old. Cotten’s signature song, it was eventually recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Grateful Dead and Pete Seeger. But all of that didn’t happen, and the general public did not get to hear it — or her — until the 1950s.

Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1893. Her parents, George and Louisa Nevills, couldn’t agree on what to call the child, so they never did get around to giving her a first name. When the teacher asked her name on the first day of school, Cotten said, “Elizabeth,” because it sounded good to her.

Though she was surrounded by music as a child—singing spirituals with her mother and uncles — she never learned to read or write music. “Everything I play for y’all tonight, I give myself credit ’cause nobody did help me,” Cotten told an audience on her 1985 Grammy Award-winning recording, “Elizabeth Cotten Live!” At age 8 she taught herself to play the banjo by borrowing her right-handed brother’s after he went to work. Being left-handed, she learned to do her fingering upside down. When her brother left home to start life on his own, Cotten was a preteen and desperate to continue playing. She started looking for work just so she could buy a guitar.

Eventually, she landed a job baby-sitting and doing housework. Her take-home pay was 75 cents a month. After five months on the job, she bought a guitar at the bargain rate of $3.75 — that was all she had earned. After that she said, “Poor thing [mother] didn’t get any more rest.”

Cotten only needed to hear a tune once or twice to learn it, but she never played a song quite the same way twice. The picking styles and bass runs developed by Cotten before her teens have become standard patterns for folk guitar.

For Southern blacks and their children, trains represented a link to the North, an opportunity to flee poverty and prejudice in the South. That theme of escape echoes in the words of the 11-year-old Cotten’s ballad: “Freight train freight train run so fast, / Freight train freight train run so fast / Please don’t tell what train I’m on / They won’t know what route I’ve gone.”

At 13 or 14, Cotten was baptized in the Baptist church — and was persuaded by the deacons to give up her “devil’s” music. Only itinerants, criminals, prostitutes and other outcasts played the blues, they told her. “I declare,” she later confided, “I don’t see where there’s so much sin in it.” Still, for many years Cotten would not so much as pick up a banjo or guitar.

When she was 15, she met Frank Cotten at church and, after a short courtship, eloped with him. A year or so later, Frank moved to New York to start the first black-owned chauffeur business in the city. Elizabeth Cotten soon followed with their daughter, Lillie. Although the couple shared a comfortable life, once Lillie had grown up and moved away, Cotten divorced her husband and moved to Washington, D.C. to be near her daughter. There, she worked at several jobs, including one at Lansburgh’s Department Store.

One providential day in the mid-1940s, Ruth Crawford Seeger stopped by the store, shopping for dolls with her two daughters. The older girl, Peggy, wandered away. Cotten found the girl in another department, frightened and in tears. When she returned Peggy to her grateful mother, Ruth Seeger handed Cotten her phone number. “If you ever decide to stop working here,” she said, “give me a call.” Within a few months, Cotten was coming to the Seeger home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, once a week to cook and do the ironing.

There, Cotten found herself surrounded by music once again. Ruth, stepmother of famous folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, taught piano; Peggy and her brother Mike were learning guitar. The family patriarch, Charles Seeger, was a noted ethnomusicologist. While Ruth gave piano lessons, Cotten would borrow the family guitar and play.

One afternoon Peggy heard Cotten singing “Freight Train” and asked to learn it. At the time, Ruth was compiling a collection of children’s folk songs and included one by Cotten. Encouraged, Cotten began to put together more new songs and, with the Seegers’ help, began occasionally singing and playing in public.

In the mid-1950s, a grown-up Peggy Seeger sang “Freight Train” during a concert tour in England, and the song was soon recorded — without permission or credit — by a British singer. It became a hit in Britain, and the furor over the songwriting credit and royalties helped create a demand for Libba Cotten’s music. Her first album, “Negro Folksongs and Tunes,” was cut in 1958 on the Folkways label, which the Smithsonian Institution acquired in 1987.

Over the years, Cotten played concerts and was on the program at the 1964 and 1968 Newport Folk Festivals. But despite her success as a performer, she continued to work her “day job” as a housekeeper until the 1970s. She didn’t reach the top of her career until her mid-80s, and she was in her early 90s when she won the Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance, only two years before her death in 1987.

Pete Seeger described Cotten’s stage persona at one of her 1968 concerts: “She walked gravely to the microphone, sat down and started picking the guitar. It was a simple tune, and repeated itself over and over with only a few modest variations. But she did it superbly, effortlessly.”

Many honors came to Cotten in the last 15 years of her life. In 1972 she received the Burl Ives Award for exceptional contributions to folk music. In 1984, as an innovator in the field of folk arts, she was made a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. She appears in the book I Dream a World, a collection of photographs of 75 influential African-American women. A year after her death, the Smithsonian honored Cotten by inducting one of her guitars into its collections at a special ceremony.

Mike Seeger once said that Cotten was “one of those people who’s bigger than the tradition she represents.” On recordings, her folksy, raspy alto and delicate guitar playing are reminiscent of a dear grandmother’s serenade: the sound warm and familiar, yet of an era long gone.

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