American blues and folk musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born on January 5, 1893 in Carrboro, N.C. Perhaps best known for teaching the world “Freight Train,” Cotten grew up near the railroad track which inspired her to write “Freight Train” at age 11, two years before she went to work as a domestic worker.
Married at 17, Cotten spent years moving around the country with her husband Frank Cotten only to divorce and settle in Washington, D.C. once her daughter was married. While doing domestic work for the family of composer and folklorist Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger, Cotten idly picked up a guitar and revealed herself to be precisely the kind of folk musician the Seegers held up as an ideal. By then she was more than 60-years-old. Seeger’s son Mike recorded her songs, releasing them just in time for the Folk Revival of the early 1960s. Cotten toured the world and won a Grammy in 1984 a year before her death. Her music has been covered by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson, and her signature fingerpicking style - crafted in part because she played her guitar upside down and backwards, is known as “Cotten picking.”