The lasting influence of American original Elizabeth Cotten

At 15 she had married a man named Frank Cotten, and at 17 she had a daughter, Lillie. Although she continued to perform occasionally in church, she eventually put music aside to focus on domestic life.

Elizabeth didn’t return to music until her mid-60s, and she may never have done so if not for a chance encounter with one of America’s most prestigious musical families.

One day, while selling dolls in a department store in Washington DC, she encountered a lost child and returned him to his mother. That child turned out to be Peggy Seeger, daughter of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and pioneering ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, and half-sister of Pete Seeger, who was to become one of the most famous folk singers of her generation.

Ruth needed a new housekeeper to cook and clean for the children, and she offered the job to Elizabeth. The Seeger family nicknamed her Libba and had no idea of ​​her musical talents until Peggy, then a teenager, discovered her playing one of the family’s guitars.

“I walked into the kitchen and saw Libba playing the guitar hanging on the wall. And she was playing Freight train“, she recalled later. “Then she started trotting songs. She knew a lot of songs. We would have been happy to cook and clean if she had just played!

Peggy’s brother Mike, also a budding musician and folklorist, asked Libba if he could record it. His first album Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Melodieswas released on the Folkways label in 1958, when she was 62.

Nearly 50 years after first learning an instrument, Elizabeth has returned to playing and composing. She has performed at major events with Mike Seeger, such as the Newport Folk Festival, alongside some of the biggest names in the folk and blues scene; artists like Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and John Lee Hooker.

She became an important figure in the 60s folk revival, continuing to release music on Folkways Records throughout the 60s and 70s. Other artists sought to emulate her austere and intimate sound. Freight train was a particular favorite among many of the most popular artists of the day, including Peter Paul and Mary, Jerry Garcia and Joan Baez, all of whom added the song to their repertoires.

Rooted in traditional bluegrass with hints of ragtime and church music, Cotten’s unique two-finger playing style, known as Cotten-picking, made his music stand out instantly, and still does. There is an authentic warmth and simplicity to his playing, singing and songwriting.

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Remaining out of sight for so long, Elizabeth has established herself as a key figure in American traditional music. In 1984 she received an American Heritage Fellowship and the following year she won a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. In 1987, at the age of 94, she died.

Although the song is over 100 years old, Freight train is still covered and reinterpreted by contemporary artists around the world. Eleven-year-old Elizabeth Cotten’s dream of escaping the mundane to seek a new life continues to resonate.

Deb Grant is a Big Issue jazz radio host and critic

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