Born on January 5, 1893, Elizabeth Cotten, nicknamed Libba, was a left-handed musician who taught herself how to play on her right-handed brother’s banjo, reversed, then on a guitar she bought at age 12 after five months of working as a babysitter and housekeeper. Today, her Martin Guitar is in the Smithsonian. Via Smithsonian Magazine in a summary of her life and career:
“Cotten only needed to hear a tune once or twice to learn it, but she never played a song quite the same way twice. The picking styles and bass runs developed by Cotten before her teens have become standard patterns for folk guitar.”
In 1984, Cotten won a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for her album, Elizabeth Cotten Live. She was 93.
In the video below, she plays Freight Train, her most famous song, written when she was 11-years-old. The song has been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Matt Valentine, Laura Veirs, and Taj Mahal.
Read more about Cotten’s life in her own words, recorded by folk artist Mike Seeger, who grew up in Cotten’s care, in the Smithsonian’s Folklife Magazine.
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