Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born Elizabeth Nevills between 1892 and 1895, near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She was born into a musically inclined family and began performing the blues at an early age. Being left-handed, she would turn her brother’s banjo upside-down in order to play it. In doing so, she created a form of picking the strings that was later known as “Cotten Picking.”
By the age of 11, Nevills bought her first guitar. She continued to utilize her unique method of finger picking. By the age of 15, she married Frank Cotten. By 16, she gave birth to their daughter. Having to work as a domestic and after becoming religious, she set the guitar and banjo aside. Her family became her top priority.
For nearly 50 years, Cotten refrained from playing the guitar or the banjo. The Cottens lived in New York until 1947. That year, the couple divorced and Elizabeth moved to Washington D.C. There, she worked as a domestic for Charles Seeger, the ethnomusicologist, and his wife Ruth Crawford-Seeger. Their son, Mike Seeger, was instrumental in launching Cotten’s career.
In 1958, Cotten released her first album, Folksongs and Instrumentals, with the help of Mike Seeger. Her debut performance took place alongside Seeger in 1959 at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The album featured one of her most famous tunes, Freight Train. By 1965, she released her second album, Shake Sugaree, under the Smithsonian Folkways label.
That same year, Cotten released her third album, When I’m Gone. From 1964-1980, she performed at a number of festivals. She performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the American Folk Festival, and the Washington Blues Festival. At the age of 80, she toured the U.S. and Europe with blues musician Taj Mahal.
In the 1980s, Cotten released her fourth and final album, Elizabeth Cotten Live. Her album won a Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. After leaving her mark on the folk music world, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten died June 29, 1987. She was ca. 95 years old.
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