She Changed The Sound: Libba Cotten

March 4, 2019

Necessity is the mother of invention, and for an early matriarch of American folk music, that sentiment rings true.

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1893–1987) was left-handed. Raised in a musical household near current day Carrboro, she gravitated to her brother’s banjo and guitar, which were set-up to be played right-handed.

For most aspiring musicians, that obstacle would have been enough to extinguish the creative flame, but Libba played on, developing an unconventional style now known to the world as “Cotten Picking.” 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.

By working odd jobs around town – picking vegetables, sweeping porches, and setting fires in wood stoves – Cotten eventually saved up the $3.75 needed to buy her first guitar, a Stella from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. It was on that guitar that she wrote “Freight Train,” her most famous song. “Freight Train” was popularized in the 1950s thanks to recordings done by the Seeger family, who Elizabeth Cotten worked for as a maid, launching the 60-something songwriter to newfound fame in the folk revival movement.

“Freight Train” has been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Doc Watson, and Taj Mahal. Cotten’s debut album Folksongs & Instrumentals with Guitar (1958) is credited as one of the most influential folk albums of all time. Often imitated, but never replicated, Libba Cotten and her “Cotten Picking” changed the sound forever.

 

-Story by Samuel Gerweck