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Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (née Nevills) (January 5, 1893 – June 29, 1987)[1] was an American blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter.

Elizabeth Cotten
Elizabeth Cotten.jpg
Background information
Birth nameElizabeth Nevills
Born(1893-01-05)January 5, 1893
Carrboro, North Carolina, United States
DiedJune 29, 1987(1987-06-29) (aged 94)
Syracuse, New York, United States
GenresFolk, blues
Occupation(s)Musician, singer-songwriter
InstrumentsGuitar, banjo, vocals

A self-taught left-handed guitarist, Cotten developed her own original style. She played a guitar strung for a right-handed player, but played it upside down, as she was left-handed.[2] This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style has become known as "Cotten picking".[3]


Early lifeEdit

Cotten was born in 1893[4] to a musical family near Chapel Hill, North Carolina,[4] in an area that would later be incorporated as Carrboro. Her parents were George Nevill (also spelled Nevills) and Louisa (or Louise) Price Nevill. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. She named herself on her first day of school, when the teacher asked her name, because at home she was only called "Li'l Sis."[5] At age seven, she began to play her older brother's banjo. "From that day on," she said, "nobody had no peace in that house".[6] By the age of eight, she was playing songs. At age 9, she was forced to quit school and began work as a domestic.[7] At the age of 11, after scraping together some money, she bought her own guitar.[8] The guitar, a Sears and Roebuck brand instrument, cost $3.75 (equivalent to $105 in 2018).[8] Although self-taught, she became proficient at playing the instrument,[9] and her repertoire included a large number of rags and dance tunes.[7]

By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, "Freight Train", became one of her most recognized. She wrote the song in remembrance of a nearby train that she could hear from her childhood home.[7] The 1956 UK recording of the song by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey was a major hit and is credited as one of the main influences on the rise of skiffle in the UK.[citation needed]

Around the age of 13, Cotten began working as a maid along with her mother. On November 7, 1910, at the age of 17, she married Frank Cotten.[10] The couple had a daughter, Lillie, and soon after Elizabeth gave up guitar playing for family and church. Elizabeth, Frank and their daughter Lillie moved around the eastern United States for a number of years, between North Carolina, New York City, and Washington, D.C., finally settling in the D.C. area. When Lillie married, Elizabeth divorced Frank and moved in with her daughter and her family.


Cotten retired from playing the guitar for 25 years, except for occasional church performances. She did not begin performing publicly and recording until she was in her 60s. She was discovered by the folk-singing Seeger family while she was working for them as a housekeeper.

While working briefly in a department store, Cotten helped a child wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Peggy Seeger, and the mother was the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Soon after this, Cotten again began working as a maid for Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger and caring for their children, Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny. While working with the Seegers (a voraciously musical family that included Pete Seeger, a son of Charles from a previous marriage) she remembered her own guitar playing from 40 years prior and picked up the instrument again and relearned to play it, almost from scratch.[8]

Later career and recordingsEdit

In the later half of the 1950s, Mike Seeger began making bedroom reel-to-reel recordings of Cotten's songs in her house.[11] These recordings later became the album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, which was released by Folkways Records. Since the release of that album, her songs, especially her signature song, "Freight Train"—which she wrote when she was 11—have been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joe Dassin, Joan Baez, Devendra Banhart, Laura Gibson, Laura Veirs, His Name Is Alive, Doc Watson, Taj Mahal, Geoff Farina, and Country Teasers. Shortly after that first album, she began playing concerts with Mike Seeger, the first of which was in 1960 at Swarthmore College.[11]

In the early 1960s, Cotten went on to play concerts with some of the big names in the burgeoning folk revival. Some of these included Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.

The newfound interest in her work inspired her to write more songs to perform, and in 1967 she released a record created with her grandchildren, which took its name from one of her songs, "Shake Sugaree". The song featured a 12-year-old Brenda Joyce Evans, Cotten's great-grandchild, and future Undisputed Truth singer.

Using profits from her touring, record releases and awards given to her for her own contributions to the folk arts, Cotten was able to move with her daughter and grandchildren from Washington, D.C., and buy a house in Syracuse, New York. She was also able to continue touring and releasing records well into her 80s. In 1984, she won the Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, for the album Elizabeth Cotten Live, released by Arhoolie Records. When accepting the award in Los Angeles, her comment was, "Thank you. I only wish I had my guitar so I could play a song for you all." In 1989, Cotten was one of 75 influential African-American women included in the photo documentary I Dream a World.

Cotten died in June 1987, at Crouse-Irving Hospital in Syracuse, New York, at the age of 94.[12]

Guitar styleEdit

Cotten began writing music while toying with her older brother's banjo. She was left-handed, so she played the banjo in reverse position. Later, when she transferred her songs to the guitar, she formed a unique style, since on the banjo the uppermost string is not a bass string, but a short, high-pitched string which begins at the fifth fret. This required her to adopt a unique style for the guitar. She first played with the "all finger down strokes" like a banjo.[8] Later, her playing evolved into a unique style of fingerpicking. Her signature alternating bass style is now known as "Cotten picking". Her fingerpicking techniques influenced many other musicians.



Recordings on CDEdit

  • Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes, Smithsonian Folkways, 1958 (also known as Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar)
  • Shake Sugaree, Smithsonian Folkways
  • Live!, Arhoolie Records
  • Vol. 3: When I'm Gone, Folkways Records

Special collectionsEdit


Video and DVDEdit

  • Masters of the Country Blues: Elizabeth Cotten and Jesse Fuller. Yazoo, 1960.
  • Elizabeth Cotten with Mike Seeger. Vestapool Productions, 1994.
  • Legends of Traditional Fingerstyle Guitar. Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder Records, 1994.
  • Mike Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, N.J.: Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop, 1991.
  • Jesse Fuller and Elizabeth Cotten. Newton, N.J.: Yazoo Video, 1992.
  • Me and Stella: A Film about Elizabeth Cotten. New Brunswick, N.J.: Phoenix Films and Video, 1976.
  • John Fahey, Elizabeth Cotten: Rare Performances and Interviews. Vestapool Productions, 1969, 1994.
  • Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger. Judy Collins and Elizabeth Cotten. Shanachie Entertainment, 2005.
  • Libba Cotten: An Interview and Presentation Ceremony. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1985.
  • Homemade American Music. Aginsky Productions, 1980.
  • Elizabeth Cotten in Concert, 1969, 1978, and 1980. Vetstapool Productions, 1969, 2003.
  • The Guitar of Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, N.J.: Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop, 2002.
  • The Downhome Blues. Los Angeles: distributed by Philips Interactive Media, 1994.
  • Elizabeth Cotten Portrait Collection. Public Broadcasting System, 1977–1985.

Awards and honorsEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Bastin, Bruce (1986). Red River Blues. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  • Cohen, John; Marcus, Greil (2001). There Is No Eye: John Cohen Photographs. New York: PowerHouse Books.
  • Cohn, Lawrence (1993). Nothing but the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. New York: Abbeville Press.
  • Conway, Cecilia (1995). African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  • Escamilla, Brian (1996). Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music. Vol. 16.
  • Harris, Sheldon (1979). Blues Who's Who. New York: Da Capa Press.
  • Hood, Phil (1986). Artists of American Folk Music: The Legends of Traditional Folk, the Stars of the Sixties, the Virtuosi of New Acoustic Music. New York: Quill.
  • Lanker, Brian (1989). I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
  • Santelli, Robert (2001). American Roots Music. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  • Seeger, Mike. Liner notes accompanying Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes, by Elizabeth Cotten. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways, 1989 reissue of the 1958 album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar.
  • Smith, Jessie Carney (1993). Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference. Detroit: Visible Ink Press.
  • Smith, Jesse Carney, ed. (1992). Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research.
  • Wenberg, Michael (2002). Elizabeth's Song. (Children's book.) Hillsboro, Oregon: Beyond Words Publishing.


  1. ^ Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 278. ISBN 978-0313344237.
  2. ^ "Cotten Elizabeth 'Libba'". Encyclopedia of Popular Music (4th ed.). 2009.
  3. ^ Zollo, Rick (2006). "Cotten Picking: Elizabeth Cotten and the Folk Revival". Shenandoah. 56 (2): 67–75.
  4. ^ a b U.S. Federal Census, Chapel Hill. 1870, 1880, 1900.
  5. ^ I Dream a World. Stewart, Tabori, & Chang. p. 156. ISBN 155670092X.
  6. ^ "The Woman Who Played Upside Down". The Attic. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Govenar, Alan, ed. (2001). "Elizabeth Cotten: African American Songster and Songwriter". Masters of Traditional Arts: A Biographical Dictionary. vol. 1 (A-J). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio. pp. 144–146. ISBN 1576072401. OCLC 47644303.
  8. ^ a b c d Bailey, Brooke (1994). The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Artists. Bob Adams. p. 32. ISBN 1-55850-360-9.
  9. ^ Demerle', L. L. (1996). "Remembering Elizabeth Cotten". Retrieved April 7, 2008.
  10. ^ Orange County Register of Deeds Office, Marriage License Book 10, p. 268.
  11. ^ a b Mike Seeger Collection Inventory (#20009), Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  12. ^ "Elizabeth (Libba) Cotten, 95, a Blues and Folk Songwriter". New York Times. June 30, 1987. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  13. ^ "Award Winners and Nominees [search]". The Blues Foundation. 2019. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
  14. ^ "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 1984". National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved May 3, 2019.
  15. ^ a b "Artist: Elizabeth Cotten". Recording Academy. 2019. Retrieved May 3, 2019.

External linksEdit