Elizabeth Cotten iTunes Tracks

Elizabeth Cotten

Born Elizabeth Nevills, January 5, 1895, Carrboro, North Carolina, “Libba” (as she was also known) was raised in nearby Chapel Hill. An early learner, she first played banjo before developing her left-handed picking pattern on the guitar. Having penned her first song, `Freight Train’, when she just was 11 or 12 years old, Elizabeth worked as a maid, but found it tough going when she married Frank Cotten and gave birth at 15 to a daughter, Lillie. She was forced to give up her trusty guitar (“Stella”) when she joined her local church; she put her family and the Lord first for over 25 years, by this time she’d relocated (to New York and Washington, D.C.), become a grandmother and a divorcee.
Quite by accident, Libba began working for the Seeger family (music-loving ethnomusicologist Charles and wife Ruth Crawford Seeger), whose brood included MIKE and PEGGY SEEGER; younger siblings of folk icon PETE SEEGER.
Now over 60 years old, and coaxed by Mike, she picked up her guitar once again, performing among others on reel-to-reel tape, her signature track `Freight Train’; she finally won a subsequent court case ultimately giving her the rights to her own song. Skiffle star CHAS McDEVITT (and Nancy Whiskey) had taken it into the UK Top 5. It was one of many tracks featured on her debut Folkways Records LP, FOLK SONGS & INSTRUMENTALS WITH GUITAR (1958) {*8}, a splendid effort from one so fragile and delicate. Blues also run the game here, tracks such as `Going Down The Road Feeling Bad’, `Ain’t Got No Honey Baby Now’, `Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie’ (covered by the Grateful Dead), `Honey Babe Your Papa Cares For You’, `Sweet Bye And Bye’ and `Vastopol’ (quite different from JOHN FAHEY’s take), being the most effective.
Well, that was that. One would expect, except Libba herself, who returned in 1967 (with MIKE SEEGER on production) for album number two, ELIZABETH COTTEN VOLUME 2: SHAKE SUGAREE {*8}. Opening with the classic title track (STEFAN GROSSMAN and TAJ MAHAL respectively recorded the song), while `Fox Chase’ is just breath-taking, her acoustics very reminiscent of RAVI SHANKAR-styled sitar or the aforementioned FAHEY.
Festivals such as Newport, Philadelphia and UCLA on the west coast were her next flights of fancy, although it’d be her guest performance in 1975 at the Kennedy Center in Washington (featuring Native American musicians) that gave her biggest accolade. In 1979, 84-year-old ELIZABETH COTTEN delivered her third volume, WHEN I’M GONE {*7}, a record that shone through songs `Jenny’, `Willie’ and `Gaslight Blues’, plus a revisit of her past catalogue including `Wilson Rag’ and the perennial `Freight Train’; fresh lyrics for `Time To Stop Idling’ & `Praying Time Will Soon Be Over’ were supplied by granddaughter Johnine Rankin.
Recorded during the 70s and the early 80s, Elizabeth and Arhoolie Records got together to release what was to become her final set, LIVE! (1984) {*5}, a comic storyteller of sorts that housed a handful of jewels including a 7-minute `Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie’. Sadly, but not surprisingly aged nearly 92, Libba died in Syracuse, New York on June 29, 1987.
© MC Strong 2010/GFD // rev-up MCS Oct2016

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