Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten’s warm and intimate recordings and live performances inspired generations of artists, and her guitar prowess and musical inventiveness influenced countless other musicians. Cotten's compositions have been performed by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, and Peter, Paul and Mary, among many others.
Cotten began composing music as a child, bringing together strains of oral traditions, church singing, ragtime, popular songs, and music played by traveling and local musicians. She quickly mastered the guitar and banjo, developing a distinctive fingerpicking guitar technique that later became widely known as "Cotten style" or "Cotten picking." Being left-handed, she taught herself to play the instrument upside-down, picking the bass strings with her fingers and treble strings with her thumb. Consequently, while Cotten's guitar style has been widely imitated, her sound is nearly impossible to replicate.
Cotten did not begin recording or performing outside family circles until she was in her sixties. After being hired as nanny and maid for the illustrious Seeger family (musicologist Charles Seeger, composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, and their children Pete, Mike, and Peggy), Cotten surprised the family one day by playing some songs from her youth on their guitar, and they immediately recognized her musical genius and virtuosity. Mike Seeger later produced Cotten’s first LP, a highly influential album of the folk revival.
Cotten recorded and performed at festivals, concerts, and coffeehouses until her death at 92. During her final years, she was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and recognized as a “living treasure” by the Smithsonian Institution. She received a Grammy Award at the age of 90. Her best-known composition, “Freight Train” – written when she was only 12 – still stands as an immortal American folk classic, and many of her songs have become staples in the repertoires of thousands of artists who have kept her unique musical legacy alive.
“Freight Train,” “Wilson Rag,” “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” “Vastopol,” Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (aka Folksongs and Instrumentals With Guitar) (1958) • “Jumpin' Jack,” “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie,” Live! (1983) • “Shake Sugaree,” “Washington Blues,” “I’m Going Away,” Shake Sugaree (2004)
The Grateful Dead, James Taylor, Rhiannon Giddens
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