An American folk and blues singer, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (born Elizabeth Nevills; January 5, 1893 – June 29, 1987) was a renowned figure in her field. She had taught herself to play guitar and was a lefty who flipped the guitar over to play it. She did not restring the guitar, thus leaving it upside down. Her fingers would play the bass in this position while her thumb would handle the melody. “Cotten picking” was coined to describe her unique alternating bass approach.
As a young child, Cotten began creating music, fusing elements of folk songs, hymns, ragtime, and popular music performed by local and touring performers. She swiftly learned the guitar and banjo, establishing a fingerpicking guitar technique that became widely recognized as “Cotten style” or “Cotten picking.” She learned to play the instrument reversed because she was left-handed, with her fingers on the bass strings and her thumb on the treble. Consequently, while Cotten’s guitar approach has been extensively emulated, her sound takes a lot of work to recreate.
She began penning her songs in her teens, with “Freight Train” becoming an instant classic. The song commemorated a train that she could hear from her house as a child. An early success for Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey in the UK, their 1956 performance of the song is often seen as a driving force behind the genre’s meteoric rise there.
At age 12, she wrote the classic folk song “Freight Train.” She worked as a domestic servant and in other odd jobs before being hired by musicologists Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger in the 1940s. In 1957, she released her debut album, Elizabeth Cotten, on the Folkways label. That same year, she also secured partial rights to “Freight Train.”
Around the time she turned 13, Cotten followed in her mother’s footsteps and went to work as a maid. She wed Frank Cotten on November 7, 1910, when she was only seventeen. After the birth of their daughter Lillie, Elizabeth decided to put her instrument down and devote herself fully to her family and church. Elizabeth, Frank, and their daughter Lillie spent several years bouncing around North Carolina, New York City, and Washington, DC, before settling down. Elizabeth got a divorce from Frank when her daughter Lillie was married, and then she moved in with her daughter and her new husband and their new baby.
Cotten received Blues Music Award nominations for Traditional Blues Female Artist in 1980, 1982, and 1987. The National Endowment for the Arts presented Cotten with the highest accolade in the folk and traditional arts field in 1984 by bestowing upon him a National Heritage Fellowship. Elizabeth Cotten Live! was nominated for a Grammy in 1985 and won the award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.
On her 20th Anniversary Concert album, released in 1986, she was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Recording. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honored Cotten with a posthumous induction into the Early Influence category in 2022.
Here is a video of Elizabeth performing Freight Train –