Elizabeth Nevills Cotten was born on January 5, 1893, in Carrboro (right next to Chapel Hill), North Carolina. And the story of how little Elizabeth grew up to become a guitarist, singer, songwriter, performer and Grammy-award winning recording artist is one that I am more than happy to tell over and over and over again.
This time, however, I’m going to let Elizabeth – or Libba, as she came to be known – tell her story herself.
The following italicized excerpts are from an article by Alice Gerrard* that first appeared as the cover story in the January 1980 issue of Frets magazine. I have the article in a collection published in 1986 by GPI Publications (edited by Phil Hood) called: Artists of Amercian Folk Music: The Legends of Traditional Folk, the Stars of the Sixties, the Virtuosi of New Acoustic Music.
Ms. Gerrard concludes the first part of the article with: “Here now, in her own words, are Libba Cotten’s recollections on her upbringing, and her thoughts on her career and her music.”
I wasn’t 12 years old and I went to work for this lady, Miss Ada Copeland. She paid me 75 cents a month. I was a lot of help to her. So she said to my mother, “We’re going to raise little Sissie’s wages.” So they gave me a dollar a month. And if you think about it, it sounds like little enough money; but in them days for a child it might’ve been a good price. But anyway, I saved my money and bought me a guitar.
There was only one place in Chapel Hill at that time that you could buy a guitar; that was Mr. Gene Kates’ place. He said, “Aunt Lou, I’ll tell you the truth. As long as you and your little girl wants a guitar so bad, you can have it for $3.75.” And the name of that guitar was Stella. And I liked my guitar so very, very much, and that’s when I began to learn how to play.
I started playing, learning different little tunes on it. I’d get one little string and then add another little string to it and get a little sound, then start playing.
When I learned one little tune, I’d be so proud of that, that I’d want to learn another. Then I’d just keep sitting up, trying. The way I do, I play it to my own sound, the way I think it sounds.
You just put the sounds together, and what sounds right you just go with it. And all of them little things I play, that’s the way I got it. I can’t read music. You just get a song and know it and just keep fooling around with it till you get it to sound like you want it to sound.
On November 7, 1910, Elizabeth Nevills married Frank Cotten. Lillie, their daughter and only child, was born a year later. Soon Elizabeth did not have time for playing the guitar.
Over the years, the Cotten family lived in Chapel Hill, New York City and Washington, D.C. After Lillie grew up and got married, Elizabeth and Frank were divorced. Elizabeth, with Lillie and her growing family, eventually settled down together in Washington, D.C. Elizabeth helped to raise her grandchildren and took various day jobs around the city.
I applied at Lansburgh’s Department Store for work before the holidays; that must have been ’47 or ’48, somewhere along there. They hired me and they gave me a job up on the fifth floor with dolls. Mrs. Seeger [composer Ruth Crawford Seeger] came in the store. She bought two dolls from me and a little lamb. She brought her two girls with her. While the dolls were getting wrapped, Peggy wandered off. I found Peggy. When I brought her back to her mother, her mother says to me, “Have you worked here long” and I told her, “No.” And she says, “If you ever decide to stop working here, here’s my telephone number. Give me a ring sometime.” So when I stopped working for Lansburgh’s I did call her, and I took the job to give them lunch on Saturdays and dinner, plus the other work I was doing.
Elizabeth found herself in a household overflowing with music. Mrs. Seeger was a piano teacher as well as being a composer. Charles Seeger, her husband, was a musician and a musicologist. Their four children – Mike, Peggy, Barbara and Penny – sang and played a multitude of instruments including piano, guitar, banjo and autoharp.
I had forgot I could play guitar. Then when I went to work for them I heard all that music. I said “I used to could play the guitar,” and I decided to play it. I got Peggy’s guitar and started playing. I was just playing what I had learned how to play down in Chapel Hill, and the more I could play it the better I could play it.
The Seegers took notice. Peggy asked Elizabeth to give her a few guitar lessons. Mike started recording Elizabeth playing her guitar and singing her songs in 1952.
One of those first recordings was released in 1997 by Smithsonian Folkways Records on the album Close To Home: Old Time Music From Mike Seeger’s Collection, 1952-1967. “In The Sweet Bye And Bye” was recorded on November 29, 1952 in the Seeger home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
In 1958, Folkways Records released Elizabeth’s first album, “Recorded with an introduction and notes on the songs by Mike Seeger.” The original title for the 14-track collection was Negro Folk Songs and Tunes. This was soon changed to Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, only to be changed again in 2002 to: Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes.
The first track on the LP is “Wilson Rag.” Mike’s liner notes describe the instrumental as “A good example of the country ragtime style, as Elizabeth Cotten calls it, that might be played at cornshucking parties.”
The second track is the original recording of Elizabeth Cotten’s most famous song: “Freight Train.” Mike noted: “When Elizabeth Cotten and her brothers were playing music together each would have songs that they called their own, and this was one that she made up and sang as hers.”
There are three other albums of Elizabeth Cotten’s music. “Shake Sugaree, Vol.2” and “When I’m Gone” were released by Folkways Records in 1965. Arhoolie Records released a collection of concert recordings in 1984 titled “Elizabeth Cotten – Live!”
“Elizabeth Cotten – Live!” was awarded the Grammy Award in 1985 for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.”
Finally, Elizabeth concluded her recollections to Alice Gerrard with this to say about her performing career.
I’m trying to do what people want to hear. So each time I just try to do a whole lot of singin’ and a whole lot of talking. I try to do it all to suit them. That’s what keeps me going now. Look like I been tellin’ it 20 years. They ought to know everything about me – ain’t no more to know. I done tell them everything from childhood up, from 11 years to 87. Now what can I tell? So that’s like it is.
But it’s a little easier than workin’, sure enough.
Elizabeth Cotten performed in her last concert at City College in New York City on February 22, 1987.
She passed away in Syracuse, New York on June 29, 1987.
Smithsonian Folkways Records lists Elizabeth Cotten as a Master of American Folk Music. They rightly conclude that “the true measure of her legacy lies with the tens of thousands of guitarists who cherish her songs as a favorite part of their repertoires, preserving and keeping alive her unique musical style.”
This Historic Day In Music: Elizabeth Cotten – Take 4.
It won’t be the last!
*Alice Gerrard is an accomplished singer, banjo player, guitarist, performer and recording artist. She was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2017.