Elizabeth Cotten: Grammy-winning folk musician hid talent for decades

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When Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was a pre-teen growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the self-taught musician wrote a song called “Freight Train.”
 Born in 1895 as the granddaughter of freed slaves, Cotten’s talents didn’t become known to the world until she was a grandmother in her 60s.

AJC Sepia Black History Month

When Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was a pre-teen growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., the self-taught musician wrote a song called “Freight Train.”

Many decades later, that song would spill from the lips of parents lulling their children to sleep far and wide. Musicians such as Taj Mahal; Mike Seeger; and Peter, Paul, and Mary would record their own versions. And in 1985, “Freight Train” would be on a Grammy Award-winning album, making Cotten one of the oldest winners at age 90.

»MORE: Read AJC Sepia’s full Black History Month series

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Elizabeth Cotten. (credit: John Cohen / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Elizabeth Cotten. (credit: John Cohen / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

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Elizabeth Cotten. (credit: John Cohen / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

»MORE: Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song

Cotten is known today as one of America’s most respected folk musicians, but it was a long road for her to get there.

Born in 1895 as the granddaughter of freed slaves, Cotten’s talents didn’t become known to the world until she was a grandmother in her 60s. She married Frank Cotten at age 15 and gave birth to a daughter — a life that left her without much time to pursue music.

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Her unique style of finger-picking the acoustic guitar left-handed didn’t become known to a wider audience until much later. That path was kick-started after her employers, the Seegar family, witnessed her abilities.

Cotten and Mike Seeger played a joint concert in 1959, marking the first professional job for both of them, and she began recording for Folkways Records. Among her more famous numbers are “Shake, Sugaree,” a song that was covered by Bob Dylan, and “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” which was admired and recorded by the Grateful Dead.

In 1978, Cotten moved to Syracuse, N.Y., where she was named the city’s first “Living Treasure.” The artist, who as a child wrote the mature lyrics, “When I die, oh bury me deep / Down at the end of old Chestnut Street / So I can hear old Number Nine /As she comes rolling by,” continued performing until a month before her death in 1987.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.