You may not know her name or her songs, but Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Garcia sure did.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten had humble beginnings in Chapel Hill, NC, but she would go on to launch a storied musical career that spanned four decades, created a new style of finger picking, influenced iconic musicians, and gained her national renown—as well as the title of the oldest woman to ever win a Grammy.
Cotten was the granddaughter of freed slaves, the youngest of five children in a hardworking family. Her birthdate is unclear: Some reports state it was January 5, 1892, others January 5, 1895. Cotten added to the confusion when she stated in an interview that she was actually born on January 6, but changed her birthday to the fifth after her mother died on the sixth. Regardless, her musical origin story is far more documented, and was frequently recounted by Cotten herself.
Playing Guitar “Upside Down”
Sneaking into her eldest brother’s room while he was off to work, seven-year-old Cotten would pick up his right-handed banjo and play it left-handed without changing the strings around. After breaking a few strings, her secret hobby was revealed. Her brother didn’t stop her, but her insistence to play upside-down prevented him from teaching her to play.
When her big brother moved out, Cotten decided she needed an instrument of her own. “When I was eleven years old I wanted a guitar. I didn’t have no way to get it unless I went to work,” Cotten said in a 1981 interview. “I knocked on doors and I said, ‘Missus, would you like someone to work for you?’” Cotten’s labor earned her a dollar a month, which she gave to her mother to save. Soon she saved enough money to purchase a Stella guitar from a local Sears Roebuck for $3.75 (roughly $112 today).
Listen to “Washington Blues” off her Grammy-winning Elizabeth Cotten Live! and hear Cotten narrate her origin story: “I play my guitar upside down, I guess you can see that, can’t you? Well, I was learning to play my guitar, I would ask my brother to show me, and that’s the answer I would get: ‘You got it upside down, turn it around or change the strings.’ Well, I changed the strings, and it was worse when I changed, so I’d leave it like this. No one helped me. Everything I played tonight, I give myself credit, because no one helped me.”
With stubborn self-reliance and irreverent determination, Cotten developed her profoundly unique picking style. With the guitar upside-down, Cotten’s thumbs plucked the high, melodious strings, while her fingers thumped the low, rhythmic strings. The resulting sound was distinctive, and decades later came to be known as “Cotten style” or “Cotten picking.” (Cotten’s friend and collaborator Mike Seeger resented the latter phrase for its connotations to slave labor, although it had no relation to such phrases as “wait a cotton-pickin’ minute.”)
The Cotten style hit the folk world like a freight train in 1958, influencing countless artists — from Joan Baez to Townes Van Zandt and beyond — but Cotten’s inverted approach created an inimitable sound that right-handers could never quite master. In this way, an 11-year-old in North Carolina quietly developed a groundbreaking guitar innovation and composed a few songs — including her seminal hit “Freight Train” — that would someday solidify her as a timeless folk legend.
Forbidden to Play Guitar
But before her music career was able to gain steam, circumstances began to drive a wedge between Cotten and the music she loved. In 1910, at age 15, she got married, and work and family life took up much of her time. Her church community also implored her to give up her rag-time songs. “The deacon told me I couldn’t play my worldly songs,” Cotten said in a later interview. “I give this church the credit of learning to play church songs.”
Of course, the irony is that the lyrics of many of Cotten’s songs express the magnanimity of their deeply religious author, and could hardly fit the bill of “worldly music.” Songs like the imperative “Time to Stop Your Idling” demonstrate Cotten’s fervent faith: “If you don’t like your brother, don’t scandalize his name/ Put it in your bosom and take it on to God/ Used to have some friends, to come along with me/ But when I got converted, they turned their backs on me.”
Nevertheless, Cotten obediently hung up her guitar, (save for a rare church performance here and there), and spent the next 45 years as a washerwoman and maid. Soon after divorcing her husband in 1940, Cotten settled in Washington, D.C. with her grown daughter Lily. Around 1952, Cotten took a holiday position at a Lansburgh’s department store and had a chance encounter with the Seegers, a musical family prominent in the world of folk music. Mother Ruth Crawford Seeger was a composer, father Charles Seeger was an ethnomusicologist, children Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penelope were all musicians, and their older half-brother Pete has become all but synonymous with American folk music.
Cotten retold the event of this auspicious meeting (strumming as she spoke) to Pete Seeger on his 1965 television show Rainbow Quest: “Mrs. Seeger, Mike Seeger’s mother, walked in with his two sisters — Pete’s step-mother — she came in with two fine looking children, that was Peggy and Barbara. She bought two dolls, one for each child. While she was waiting for the dolls to get wrapped, Peggy got lost in the store. I happened to be the one to find her and bring her in to her mother. Peggy was crying, and I never could stand to see children cry much. When I brought her in, the tears were coming down my cheeks. Mrs. Seeger says to me, ‘Have you been working here long?’ I says, ‘No.’ She says, ‘Well, if you ever decide to stop working here, here’s my telephone number, give me a ring.’ I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do that.’”
Click the bar above to listen to Libba Cotten play her enduring song, “Freight Train.”
After New Year’s 1953, Cotten left the department store and began working every Saturday in the Seeger home. Just as all those years ago, the beckon of the guitar called to Cotten, and, when she believed she was alone, she snuck into the kitchen with one of the family’s guitars and played. For almost five years, the family was unaware of Cotten’s musical prowling — or prowess. That changed one day when little Peggy Seeger heard Libba playing, and Cotten anticipated trouble. But rather than scold her for playing the guitar, the Seegers — especially Mike — became enamored with the elder guitarist’s unique picking style and warm, wistful melodies.
Cotton showed the family the songs she had written as a child and all but forgotten. Mike Seeger said her music comes from “Afro-American Southern people,” but also incorporates aspects of parlor music, banjo picking, band music, church music, and more. He recorded her most enduring work, “Freight Train,” in 1957, the release of which saw then 62-year-old Cotten performing in the homes of Washington elites, including future president John F. Kennedy. The Seeger family helped recorded Cotton’s first album in their home, and, in 1958, they released Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes.
The Seeger’s admiration for Cotten’s talent helped introduce the sexagenarian to the music world, and she quickly became a name of great renown. Even her name was influenced by the Seegers: Cotton preferred the nickname “Libba” to her full name, the shorter version having originated from one of the Seeger children struggling to pronounce “Elizabeth.”
Pete Seeger inspired many a generation of folk artists, but his praises of Cotten on his television show Rainbow Quest leave no doubt that he himself was inspired by Cotten. “No matter how many times I look at Elizabeth Cotten playing the guitar, I never fail to be amazed,” Seeger said. “It’s a regular guitar but she’s playing it left-handed, so her thumb plays the high notes, and her finger plays the low notes.” Seeger’s words fail to capture what his facial expression in the interview so easily conveys: sheer wonder at witnessing this quiet woman and her unorthodox instrument, strumming the simple, brilliant songs of her soul. At the end of the interview, Seeger picks up his own guitar and the two folk legends — a younger white man and an older black woman — join together as equals to perform “Wilson Rag” and “Freight Train.”
For the next three decades, Cotten lived a life that had been denied her for 40 years: the life of a musician. The strong work ethic that Cotten developed as a maid — the same ethic that earned Cotten her first guitar — fueled her busy musical career. “She lived, simultaneously, this incredibly ordinary life for a person of her essential caste — where she was born, the place she was born, the color of her skin, and the country she was born in. As a domestic servant, that was a very mundane existence,” said Robert Searing, historian and curator of the Onondaga Historical Society in Syracuse, NY, which houses Cotten artifacts, including her guitar and her Grammy award. “At the same time, she has this incredible second act, where she tours the world, becomes a Grammy award winner, who meets and plays for presidents and Congresspeople, who meets some of the great people we know as musicians. … She’s just thankful, grateful to have that experience after toiling, and the divorce, and leaving home.”
Cotten spent her days performing, recording, and collaborating with other folk artists, especially Mike Seeger. Along the way, her classics “Shake Sugaree,” “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” and “Freight Train” were covered by everyone from the Grateful Dead to Peter, Paul, and Mary. Her influence extended past her death; most fans of the film Pitch Perfect’s iconic “Cups” song probably don’t know that the song’s chorus comes from “When I’m Gone,” a folk tune of unknown origin which Cotten popularized.
Throughout the instrumental runs, the faithful prayers, and the insightful wisdom of Cotten’s music, is an ever-flowing admiration for life — a rhythmic love of the living and of the dead. Her contributions were recognized in 1972 with the National Folk Burl Ives Award and in 1984, when she the National Endowment for the Arts declared her a National Heritage Fellow. In 1989, Brian Lanker included Cotten in his book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.
In 1978, Cotten moved to Syracuse, NY, where she continued making music and performing with the vibrance of an artist half her age. The City of Syracuse declared her the city’s first “living treasure,” and, in 1983, dedicated a park to her: the Libba Cotten Grove, located on South State Street. A group of sixth graders from Edward Smith Elementary School sang to Cotten at the park’s dedication, and Cotten — true to the love of children that brought her into the Seeger’s home — clambered onto the stage to sing alongside the kids, according to the local newspaper.
In 1985, she again made history, winning the Grammy for the Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk recording for her album Elizabeth Cotten Live at the age of 90, (the oldest woman to win a Grammy). While the songs on the album demonstrate that she never lost her musical touch — and, if anything, continued to perfect her chops with age — they also are a testament to her remarkable knack for live performance. She has the crowd in the palm of her hand, telling jokes and instructing the crowd to join in singing where possible.
“People like to hear her talk on the stage just as much as hear her music because her music is far more subtle than her speech,” Mike Seeger said. “Her music is incredibly subtle and complex and well thought out.” Indeed, anecdotal narration between songs was a penchant of Cotten’s performances; she educated her audiences on the development of “Cotten picking,” then wowed them with it in the next song.
Cotten passed away in Syracuse at the age of 92, and she continued to perform up to a month before her death.
OHA curator Searing said that many black folk artists of Cotten’s era never had the chance to record their music, let alone record with the Seegers, and that Cotten represents the exception to this rule. To Searing, Cotten’s story has exceptional value for young people, and should be a testament to determination and perseverance against all odds. “As an African-American woman born into the Jim Crow South, that’s a critical part of her existence, so for her to come out of that place, to have become a person known all over the world, I think is astonishing,” Searing said. “Not just people of color in Syracuse, but for everybody, that’s an incredible story of achievement, and talent, and sharing your gift.”
In 2012, the City of Syracuse unveiled a monument at Libba Cotton Grove depicting Cotten playing her upside-down Martin guitar. Her Martin and Grammy are proudly displayed in the Onondaga Historical Society in downtown Syracuse. “It’s not a story that is as known as I think it should be, all things considered, but we’re incredibly honored and incredibly proud to house those two items, it’s two of our most treasured objects for sure,” Searing said.
Though Cotten’s picking style is, simply put, one of the most influential musical innovations of the 20th century, the guitar community hasn’t always recognized her as the pioneer she was. Other lefty innovators of the same era — like surf strummer Dick Dale, blues legend Albert King, and guitar god Jimi Hendrix — frequently steal the spotlight for their unique approaches, though Dale and King flipped their guitars just as Cotten did. Nevertheless, the innovation of a self-taught left-handed black woman revolutionized a world that was never intended for her, and one that traditionally tends to forget her significance. Indeed, her style is perhaps more famous than her music, but those who do know Cotten maintain that she could play with the best of them. “White, black, man or woman, there’s no one who has the tone and the rhythm and the general feeling of her songs,” Mike Seeger said.
In recent years, Cotten has garnered more attention; she has featured in articles, landed on lists of the best female guitarists, and become the subject of a 2018 children’s book written by Laura Veirs called Libba: The Magnificent Music of Elizabeth Cotten. In 2019, she was posthumously inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
While Cotten was certainly celebrated in her lifetime, and well after it, the resurgent interest in her story may reflect a newfound emphasis on representation for historically underrepresented voices in the music world. This — paired with societal changes in the way history is remembered — has led to something of a renaissance for Elizabeth Cotten. The quest to create space in the music world for black women has led to the rediscovery of a black woman who has always existed in this world, and she is finally getting her due.