Elizabeth Cotten – Freight Train

Elizabeth Cotten

Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on January 5, 1895. One of four children of George Nevills and Louise Price Nevills. At about the age of eight, started playing her older brother’s Banjo and, a little later, brother’s hidden guitar. When he was out she would pull the guitar from under his bed and set it flat on her lap.
At first she developed her picking pattern, with her left hand, then chording and then some of the easier part of Wilson Rag. She saved money and finally got her own guitar, ‘Stella’. To learn a new tune she needed only to hear it played once by other musicians around her town. Her brothers and sister could also play. Sometimes they would play homemade instruments around the house for themselves and friends.
“Where I lived the freight train would keep me awake at night. I started writing about what it was doing there.”
wrote a song Freight Train with ‘Stella’. She was twelve years old. Started doing housework, in Chapel Hill area just like her mother did.
In February 1910, got married to Frank Cotten when she was fifteen. She had one daughter, Lillie, and soon after joined the church. Gave up guitar playing for 25 years except for brief occasions in the church.
At various points Elizabeth, Frank and Lillie moved back and forth between Washington D.C., Chapell Hill and NYC. Then Frank moved to NYC where he had job as a chauffeur (and later operated his own garage shop on South Broadway).
Elizabeth and Lillie moved to NYC to be with him and they lived there for about three years. Lillie went to school in Yonkers and Elizabeth worked in a furniture shop. When Lillie got married Elizabeth got divorced. Since early 1940, she lived with her daughter and 5 grandchildren in Washington D.C.
In 1946 or 1947, when she worked in a Lansburgh’s department store, found Peggy Seeger, who was lost and brought her back to her mother Ruth Crawford Seeger.
In 1947 or 1948, started work for the Seeger family. a few years after, remembered that she could play guitar. She’s got Peggy’s guitar and, recalling how to play step by step. Started playing again.
Late 1957 to early 1958, recorded at a bedroom in Elizabeth’s home in Washington D.C. Mike Seeger visited about a half dozen times for the recording.
In 1958, released Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar (a.k.a. Negro Folk Songs and Tunes, now reissued as Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes – Folkways)
In January 1960(1959?), her first concert with Mike Seeger at a joint performance at Swarthmore Collage.
Then manytimes with the New Lost City Ramblers(over the years), sometimes with (Mississippi) John Hurt of John Jackson and sometimes by her self. She played at various folk festivals among other “discovered” musicians such as John Lee Hooker, Jesse Fuller and Muddy Waters.

1961, University of Chicago Folk Festival
1963, Philadelphia Folk Festival
1964, UCLA Folk Festival
1964, Newport Folk Festival
1964, Played with John Hurt, Skip James, Rev.Wilkins at Coffee house ‘The Ontario Place’ in Washinton D.C.

1967, released Shake Sugaree (Folkways) recorded with her grandchildren, Brenda, Johnny, Sue and Wendy.
1968-1971, Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife
1972, recieved the National Folk Association’s Burl Ives Award for her contribution to American folk music.

Late 1970s, began touring regularly. after John Ullman of Traditional Arts servises began actively organizing her bookings.
1978, bought a house in Syracuse, New York then moved there with her daughter and grandchildren.
1979, released When I’m Gone (Folkways 03537)
1979(?), toured with Taj Mahal
late 1980s to early 90s, Received many honors. She was in her late eighties and early nineties.
1984, released Elizabeth Cotten Live! (Arhoolie Records)
1984, received National Endowment For The Arts National Heritage Fellowship Aword
1984 received Grammy Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live!
1986 Grammy Best Traditional Folk Recording nommination

1989, chosen as one of 75 influential African-American women to be include in the photo documentary, I Dream a World (Stewrat, Tabori and Chang. 1989)
And a road in North Carolaina was named the Elizabeth Cotten Bikeway and got many honors from the city of Syracuse.

June 29, 1987, died in Syracuse, New York at age of 92.
Called as Libba Cotten. Her self taught upside-down guitar playing is still remembered and influencing many guitarists today.



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