Each week during Black History Month, JamBase will feature a playlist featuring an influential black guitarist. Today’s episode features The Mother Of Folk, Elizabeth Cotten.
Elizabeth “Libba” Nevills was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on January 5, 1893. Her left-handed picking style was developed at an early age, writing her well-known folk song “Freight Train” at the age of 11 years old. As a teenager, she married Frank Cotten and they had a daughter, Lille. During this period the family eventually settled near Washington D.C. and Cotten ceased performing on guitar and banjo.
While working in a department store in Washington D.C., she met the Seeger family, who were prominent in the early folk movement, and soon after employed her. The Seegers, which included Pete Seeger, quickly discovered Cotten’s talents. Mike Seeger in particular was integral to Cotten’s recording, which led to the 1957 release on the Folkways label of his 62-year-old debut album, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Melodies. Cotten followed those with 1967 Shake the sugar (Folkways), 1979 When I am gone (Folkways) and 1989 Elizabeth Cotten Live (Arhoolia).
According to the Smithsonian Folkways label:
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1895-1987), best known for her timeless song “Freight Train”, built her musical legacy on a solid foundation of late 19th and early 20th century African-American instrumental traditions. Through her songwriting, quietly commanding personality, and unique left-handed guitar and banjo styles, she inspired and influenced generations of young artists. In 1984 Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and was subsequently recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as a “living treasure”. She received a Grammy Award in 1985 at the age of 90, nearly 80 years after she began composing her own works…
Thanks in large part to early recordings of her work by Mike Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten soon found herself performing small gigs in the homes of congressmen and senators, including that of John F. Kennedy. In 1958, at the age of 62, Libba had recorded his first album, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Melodies …
Meticulously recorded by Mike Seeger, it was one of the few authentic folk music albums available in the early 1960s, and certainly one of the most influential. In addition to the now well-recorded song “Freight Train”, written by Cotten when she was only 11 or 12 years old, the album provided accessible examples of some of the “open” chords used in American folk guitar. She played two distinct styles on banjo and four on guitar, including her “Freight Train”-style single-string melody, an adaptation of the choice of Southeastern country ragtime.
In addition to “Freight Train”, Cotten was responsible for writing the song “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie”, which many readers may recognize from the performances of the Grateful Dead and the guitarist in the pair of tracks. timeless. His debut album, released several years before The Warlocks became Grateful Dead, also contained his rendition of “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad”.
Cotten also recorded the song “Shake Sugaree”, as the title track of her second album. The song at least partly inspired Robert Hunter’s “Sugaree,” which Garcia co-wrote and performed solo and with the dead.
Famed blues promoter Dick Waterman, who had booked shows for Cotten, attempted to secure his royalties on recordings of “Sugaree” which appeared on Garcia’s self-titled 1972 debut solo album and the bands’ live album. Died in 1976, steal your face, among many other later official releases. According to the book, Dick Waterman: A Life in the Blueswhile Cotten was still alive and in his 90s, Waterman sent a letter to the dead asking for payment for Cotten.
“I got a letter from their attorney showing me eight or 10 public domain versions of ‘Shake Sugaree,'” Waterman told author Tammy L. Turner. “In other words, ‘Fuck off and die. We’re not going to give you anything.
Waterman thought that settled the matter. The situation changed after a conversation Waterman had with John Scher, owner of the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. According to Waterman:
“I said [Scher] the story. He was somehow [the Grateful Dead’s] East Coast Director, so he said, ‘Does Jerry know about this?’ I said, ‘I don’t have access to Jerry.’ He said, ‘Jerry would be pissed.’ I said, ‘Be my guest. Tell it to Jerry.
He told Jerry, and Jerry went crazy. The decision was that ‘Shake Sugaree’ was a thing of the past, but they would do one of his songs called ‘Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie’, and they would give him a $700 advance on the edition.
[“Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” was recorded by the Grateful Dead for their acoustic 1981 live album, Reckoning.]
“They sent him the $700. She lived in Syracuse, New York, and she went to buy one of those two-door fridge-freezers in avocado green. I later saw her perform in LA at a place called McCabe’s. It’s a guitar shop by day and a folk club by the weekend.
“She was in the locker room and I walked into the room. She was a small bird-like woman. She said, ‘Oh, Mr. Waterman, how are you?’ I said hi. It’s a pleasure to see you, Ms. Cotten. She said, “I want to thank you for helping me with my song.” I said, ‘Oh, that’s good. Did everything go well? She was very serious and said, “Mr. Waterman, people come from all over Syracuse to stand in my kitchen and look at my new refrigerator. I said, ‘That’s wonderful. You tell them where that from. is coming? She said, ‘Yeah. I’m telling them it’s from some deaths in California.'”
Perhaps indicative of Garcia’s penchant for Cotten songs, “Freight Train” and “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” were performed at the start of the show when he performed among his only solo gigs on the 10th. April 1982. Although not listed on official listings, an astute anonymous commenter on Jerry Garcia’s Middle Finger website noted that Garcia strung together the opener’s second song “Freight Train” and “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” with the Cotten-recorded instrumental “Wilson Rag.” “Freight Train” would later appear on Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s 1993 collaborative children’s album, Not for kids only.
Cotten is one of many black musicians who strongly influenced early folk, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll musicians, especially guitarists and banjo players. The 10-song playlist (with two bonus “story” tracks) below features Cotten performing “Freight Train”, “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie”, “Shake Sugaree”, “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” and “Wilson’s Chiffon. There are three songs, “Shoot That Buffalo”, “Can’t Get a Letter from Down the Road”, and “Boatman Dance” which showcase his signature banjo technique.
Indicative of his spiritual side, the playlist includes “Sweet Bye And Bye” / “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” and the powerful “Praying Time Will Soon Be Over” which resonates with deep emotion during the Month of the black history.
Elizabeth Cotten was 94 when she died on June 29, 1987 in Syracuse, New York. His legacy remains impactful as generations of new pickers continue to hear and learn from his singular style.
Listen to The Mother Of Folk, Elizabeth Cotten via the playlist below: