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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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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.

By Marika Carley

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