“We used to go over to the railroad track and play,” she said. “We’d take straight pins, lay them on the railroad track and make little alphabets out of them. We’d know just about the time when the train was either coming or going, and the train would run over the pins and mash them together, stick them right together, and we’d have a little box of alphabets of pins…. After that, me and my brother, we’d have to cut wood. We would each have a song, he had his and I had mine. We used to sing about trains. That was the beginning of me writing ‘Freight Train,’ right about then. That was a long time ago….”
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (January 5, 1895 – June 29, 1987) was an American musician. Her style was of the traditional blues and folk genre. However, Libba was quite original since she was self-taught and had no knowledge of conventional guitar tunings. Her unique approach to left-handed guitar playing was to hold the guitar upside down strung as standard tuning. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers, and the melody with her thumb. Her signature, alternating bass style is known as “Cotten picking”.
Elizabeth had retired from the guitar for twenty-five years, except for occasional church performances. It wasn’t until she reached her sixties that she began recording and performing publicly. She was discovered by the folk-singing Seeger family while she was working for them as a housekeeper.
Elizabeth Cotten began writing music while toying around with her older brother’s banjo. She was left handed so she played the banjo “backwards”. Later, when she transferred her songs to the guitar, a unique style was formed, since on the Banjo the uppermost string is not a bass string, as on the guitar, but a short high pitched string, called a drone string. This required her to adopt a unique style for the guitar, which she first played with all finger down strokes like a banjo. Later this evolved into a unique style of finger picking, and her signature, alternating bass style is known as “Cotten Picking”.
Her unmistakably original chords, melodies and finger picking techniques would go on to influence many other musicians.
A few more tidbits:
* Elizabeth Cotten went to work, hunting for her own job door-to-door, at 11-years-old until she got one earning 75 cents a month to buy her first guitar. * She named herself Elizabeth in the classroom one day (“Her parents couldn’t agree on a name, so, she was called “Little Sis,” “Babe,” and “Shug,” until her first day of school, when she announced that her name was now Elizabeth“). * Mike Seeger later said, “Who would have known that my mother and Elizabeth, both musicians, would have met in a department store. I think that after a couple of minutes, they recognized each other. For her to come into our house, and at that time, when recorded documentation was just beginning…”. * She played with the New Lost City Ramblers, sometimes with (Mississippi) John Hurt, who can be heard by clicking here and here! * Ms. Cotten wrote many songs, including “Take Me Back to Baltimore” and “Shake Sugaree,” which Devendra Banhart does a lovely rendition of below [Click here to hear Elizabeth Cotten’s version sung by her granddaughter!]:
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.