Making Music History: Meet Elizabeth Cotten, 2019 N.C. Music Hall of Fame Inductee

October 5, 2019

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten will be posthumously inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame on October 17, 2019.

Born in 1893 in Carrboro, N.C., Cotten developed a unique style of guitar playing known to the world now as “Cotten Picking,” a technique born out of necessity. Libba was left-handed, and her brother’s guitar was strung to be played right-handed, so she learned to play the guitar upside down. Playing the lower strings with her index finger and the higher strings with her thumb established a unique sound, placing more emphasis on the bass lines and effectively serving as her own accompanist when playing.

Cotten penned her most famous song, “Freight Train,” when she was only a teenager. The iconic song was made famous during the folk revival of the late 1950s after she played it for the Seeger family, who she worked for as a maid. Her debut 1958 album, Folksongs & Instrumentals with Guitar, is credited as one of the most influential folk albums of all time, and her songs have been covered countless times by the likes of Doc Watson, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Rhiannon Giddens. 

Elizabeth Cotten passed away in 1987, at the age of 94, leaving a permanent mark on the world of folk and blues music. This month she will join an esteemed group of North Carolina musicians in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.