Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born on January 5, 1895 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, although some sources list the year of her birth as 1893. Cotten began playing the banjo at the age of eight and soon thereafter turned to the guitar and at the age of twelve wrote “Freight Train,” a timeless folk song that would eventually stand beside other classics in the canon of great train songs.
Early Life, Discovery, and “Freight Train”
As a young woman, Cotten put aside any hopes of being a musician for marriage, motherhood, and work. But after a divorce in 1940 led her to Washington, D.C., Cotten’s work in a department store led her to be discovered by the world, according to Nigel Williamson’s The Rough Guide to the Blues.
While working in Landsburgh’s Department Store around the mid-1940s, Cotten found a lost girl and helped reunite the girl with her mother. The mother turned out to be Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the little girl was Peggy Seeger, who was the sister of Pete Seeger. The chance encounter led Cotten to working in the Seeger household, where the family’s interest in music rekindled Cotten’s own musical talents.
Eventually, Peggy’s brother Mike Seeger produced Cotten and her unique finger-picking guitar playing for an album with Folkways, Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar (1958). The album included the song about death that Cotten wrote as a 12-year-old, “Freight Train”: “When I die, oh bury me deep / Down at the end of old Chestnut Street, / So I can hear old Number Nine / As she comes rolling by.”
Audiences came to love Cotten’s performances at folk festivals, where she would tell stories about her life and perform songs with her distinctive guitar playing. As her friend and musician Dana Klipp would later explain, “It wasn’t just her music; it was her entire personality and her spirituality. It was a very gentle and graceful spirituality.”
Still, she kept her day job of doing domestic work until 1970. She made additional recordings, and the album Elizabeth Cotton, Live won a Grammy award in 1984 when Cotten was 89.
Later Life and Death
Cotten spent the last years of her life in Syracuse, New York, which in 1983 named a small park “The Elizabeth Cotten Grove” in her honor. But Cotten still continued to perform in her later years. Cotten’s last performances occurred at the 1986 Philidelphia Folk Festival and at a New York City performance arranged for her by Odetta in 1987.
Cotten passed away on June 29, 1987, and although in “Freight Train” she asked to be buried “Down at the end of old Chestnut Street,” her body was cremated.
Cotton’s music and spirit, however, live on. Cotten left behind a lot of fans, while others are still discovering her today. Below is one of her late interviews, when she was interviewed by Aly Bain for his 1985 series Down Home.
Cotten’s songs have been covered by many performers, including Jerry Garcia and Peter, Paul and Mary. Another of her many honors is that she was included in Brian Lanker’s book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.
What is your favorite performance by Elizabeth Cotten? Leave your two cents in the comments.
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