On Wednesday morning, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2022 inductees. Embodying perhaps more a spirit than a specific rock sound, the wide-ranging class of 22 includes Dolly Parton, Eminem, Lionel Richie, and Carly Simon.
The list also includes one very influential, and very overdue name: That of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, who was born, the granddaughter of freed slaves, in Chapel Hill (a part that is now known as Carrboro) in 1893. Cotten began playing music as a child, making 75 cents a month working at a neighbor’s home and saving up enough money to buy a guitar. She first taught herself to play banjo, then guitar, in a unique way: By turning the instruments upside down. Her loping, inventive style became her signature.
“Being left-handed, she taught herself to play the instrument upside-down, picking the bass strings with her fingers and treble strings with her thumb,” reads Cotten’s new biography on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website. “Consequently, while Cotten’s guitar style has been widely imitated, her sound is nearly impossible to replicate.”
At the age of 12, inspired, she has said, by the sound of nearby trains, Cotten wrote the haunting blues song “Freight Train,” which has since gone on to become a staple of folksingers. (Despite this fact, Cotten never received royalties or credit until a lawsuit, which only gave her partial credit.)
Cotten married Frank Cotten at the age of 15 and had a daughter at the age of 16 and later moved to Washington, D.C. and New York; after her daughter was married, she divorced her husband. Much of her life was spent doing domestic work for white families and it was not until the late 1950s, when she was in her sixties, that she met the Seeger family by chance and began working as a nanny for them and started to perform and record her music.
”There’s no one like her that I’ve ever met or that was ever recorded,” Mike Seeger told the New York Times in 1983, a few years before Cotten died. ”Some people are characteristic of a tradition, other people are a little bigger than it, and she would be one of those people who’s bigger than the tradition.”
The Elizabeth Cotten mural, installed in 2020, can be found in Carrboro at 111 North Merritt Mill Road; a bikeway through Carrboro is also named in her honor. The Music Maker foundation also holds an annual free concert series, Freight Train Blues. This summer’s series runs May 13-June 10 in the Carrboro Town Commons and includes a performance by The Branchettes.
You can find more resources on Elizabeth Cotten’s music and life in a guide put together by the Southern Folklife Collection.
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