When Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten returned a lost, young girl to her home in Washington, DC, a few opportunities rose for her. Libba worked at a department store. The young girl’s parents offered Libba a job in their home, and Libba accepted the position.
At a young age, Libba taught herself how to play her brother’s guitar and banjo while living at home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (despite being disallowed to do so). She played the instruments upside-down because she’s a lefty. As you might guess, this developed into a unique picking style! She played often and she wrote her own tunes, instrumentals and some with lyrics.
One day at her new workplace, Libba decided to take a few minutes to play the family guitar. The family’s daughter heard her playing and she was mesmerized. So, she told her parents. Not long after, Elizabeth Cotten was recording her songs and making albums, playing shows — including a show for the President Of The United States. In 1958 her first album was released. You can purchase it nowadays under the title “Freight Train And Other North Carolina Folk Songs”.
How did this young woman from Chapel Hill become so renowned — and so quickly? As it turned out, the lost little girl she had returned home that day was Peggy Seeger, daughter of Pete Seeger. We can elaborate on Pete Seeger’s accomplishments on another day. Today we’ll celebrate this specific contribution he’s made to the music world, he helped make public the songs and sounds of miss Elizabeth Cotten!
Now this is a heart-warming story about serendipity, about Libba’s love for music blossoming into a meaningful career — not through fame-seeking but quite accidentally, because she was that talented and she couldn’t keep from playing guitar. It wasn’t so much dedication as it was addiction, passion for playing music.
We know well that when music’s in you, it cannot be expelled! Who would want to do that anyway, right?
Here are our humble covers of two tunes by miss Cotten.
For me, Elizabeth Cotten represents someone who learned her instrument on her own, because it was something she was passionate about. Things weren’t always played note for note, exactly the same way every time. She (along with Mississippi John Hurt, more on him later!) are folks that made playing guitar seem accessible to me, because they didn’t play to be the flashiest pickers– they played because they loved it. This is not to say they weren’t incredible players! I just think the love for the instrument came first, and that’s what turned them into incredible players. Thus, my common woman’s version of Freight Train– played a little out of my comfort zone on guitar, because this lady gave me the courage to try it out.
I chose to cover “Oh, Babe It Ain’t No Lie” because I watched a video of Elizabeth telling the story behind the song and it made me laugh. Also, I can relate. I remember having that feeling as a child, being betrayed by an adult who ‘told on me’!
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