A Living Treasure
Elizabeth Cotten, nicknamed “Libba” was born near Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1895. She was one of four children born to George Nevils, who was a sometime moonshiner and also set dynamite in the iron mines, and Louise Price Nevels, who was a cook. She taught herself how to play both guitar and banjo at a very early age.“My head was always full of music,” she said . Libba started playing her brother’s banjo and then his guitar when he was not at home, as this was an activity forbidden her. She would set the guitar flat on her lap and play. Since she was left handed she had to reverse both banjo and guitar to make it easier to play. Eventually she saved up the necessary $3.75 to purchase a Stella guitar. She then set to work in earnest to develop a unique guitar style characterized by simple figures played on the bass strings in counterpoint to a melody played on the treble strings, a method that later became widely known as "Cotten style." She fretted the strings with her right hand and picked with her left, the reverse of the usual method. Moreover, she picked the bass strings with her fingers and the treble (melody strings) with her thumb, creating an almost inimitable sound. To learn a new tune she needed only to hear it played once by other musicians around her town. Hers was a musical family and her brothers and sisters also played, sometimes on homemade instruments.
When she was twelve she wrote the epic song Freight Train: ”where I lived the freight train would keep me awake at night. I started writing about what it was doing there.” She built her musical legacy on a firm foundation of late 19th- and early 20th-century African-American instrumental traditions. At this time she also began to hire out to do housework in the Chapel Hill area as her mother had done before her. When she was fifteen, she married Frank Cotton and had one daughter, Lillie. She pretty much gave up playing for twenty five years, counseled by her pastor to give up secular music. She played only on brief occasions, religious music, at her church.
Elizabeth, Frank and Lillie moved back and forth between Washington D.C., Chapel Hill and New York City. Frank eventually moved to New York City where he took a job as a chauffeur and later opened his own shop on South Broadway. Elizabeth and Lillie joined him in the city where Lillie went to school in Yonkers and Elizabeth worked in a furniture shop. When Lillie married, Elizabeth and Frank divorced. She moved to Washington D.C., where she lived with her daughter and five grandchildren.
While she was working at Lansburgh’s department store in Washington D.C., she found and returned a very lost, scared and young Peggy Seeger to her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. A month later Cotten began work in the household of the famous folk-singing Seeger family. Cotten began doing the “washing, cleaning and baking” for the family of folk lovers . This was such a fortunate place for Libba to have landed and it was entirely by accident!
Ruth Seeger was a noted composer and music teacher. Her husband Charles, was a pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology; brother Mike was a musician and folklorist; and Pete Seeger was Peggy’s half brother. Libba was there for a few years before Peggy heard her playing the family’s gut stringed guitar. Libba was mortified and apologized greatly for playing the instrument without asking. Peggy, however, was astonished by what she had been listening to. It was not long before the Seergers came to know and appreciate Libba’s virtuosity and the wealth of her repertoire.
It was in the late 1950’s that Mike Seeger recorded Elizabeth in her bedroom, in D.C. Folkway’s released many of her works. She went on to perform in many venues often with the New Lost City Ramblers, Jon Hurt, John Jackson, and by herself. She played at folk festivals with other musicians who had been "discovered" such as John Lee Hooker, Jesse Fuller and Muddy Waters. In 1972 she received the National Folk Association’s Burl Ives Award for her contribution to American Folk Music. In 1984 Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and was later recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as a "living treasure." She received a Grammy Award in 1985 when she was ninety, almost eighty years after she first began composing her own work, She received many other honors and awards and continued to perform well into her early nineties.