UNSUNG (Folk Edition): Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten

In today’s society, many people have assumptions about what they think Folk music was about, as well as who created Folk music. Well, many probably do not know that the creators were not Southern white men with banjos, but African Americans expressing their grief and struggles from being captured and transported to a new land. Music was the only way that Africans could grieve as they were living in a very traumatic state. To make things worse, they couldn’t even bring over their beloved instruments from home, so they had to utilize the resources they could in this foreign land to recreate the instruments they once knew. This is truly where the banjo originated from, along with the many drums we know and love today. When it comes to playing the banjo (and it’s cousin, the guitar), African Americans had it down to a science and were able to create masterpieces with the distinct sound of the instrument. One artist in particular, who is hardly thought about or even mentioned as a pioneer of the banjo is Elizabeth “Libba”Cotten. She had music running through her veins from a young age and went her whole life teaching herself the banjo to finally live out the career of her dreams later in life. 

Early Life

Elizabeth was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1895. At an early age she taught herself to play the banjo and guitar, which are known as traditional African folk instruments originally from Africa. In secret, she would borrow her brother’s instruments and reverse them to make them easier to play with her left-hand. At the young age of 11, she penned the infamous tune “Freight Train”. She then purchased her first Stella guitar which birthed her unique style. This style was characterized by playing simple figures on the bass string in counterpoint to a melody played on the treble strings, a method now known as “Cotten style”. 

At the age of 15, she married Frank Cotten and had one child, Lil. As a new wife she began to spend more time at church and was forced to give up her “wordly” guitar music. It was not until many years later that she began her professional music career after working at a department store in Washington, D.C. One day, she found and returned a lost Peggy Seeger to her mother, Ruth Crawford and a month later she began working inside the home the famous folk-singing Seeger family.

A few years passed before Peggy discovered Elizabeth playing the family’s guitar & was astonished at what she heard. Elizabeth soon found herself giving small concerts in the homes of congressmen and senators like John F. Kennedy!

 

Career

1958: At the age of 62 she recorded her first album Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes. 

1960s: Cotten began to tour throughout North America. Stops on her tour included, the Newport Folk Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the University of Chicago Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival.

1967: Cotten released her first CD, Shake Sugaree, and continued to release more!

1972: Cotten was awarded the National Folk 1972 Burl Ives Award for her huge contribution to folk music.

1983:  Syracuse, NY (where she spent the last years of her life) honored her and named a small park after her: the Elizabeth Cotten Grove

1984:– She was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.

1985: Her album, Elizabeth Cotten Live won a Grammy for the Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.

1987: Her last concert before her death, which was put together by fellow African American folk icon, Odetta Holmes in NYC.

Performances

Many people to this day may not be familiar with the work of Elizabeth Cotten, but she was absolutely brilliant and extremely innovative, as her strumming technique is sought after and often imitated. Although she may not be publicized as one of the folk icons, she was extremely influential with her unique vocals to accompany her strumming, and always graced every stage she performed on with humility and warmth. Her legacy lives on, especially in the hearts of guitarists all over the world who are inspired by her unique musical style and innovative strumming technique.

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