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.