I was scrolling through Twitter on the day after the Supreme Court’s treachery was revealed. Despite ALL of the Catholic Conservatives saying abortion rights were “settled law” as they were on the route to confirmation, they turned right around and unsettled it. But this is not about that.
I kept scrolling for a palate cleanser to remove the reminders of slavery’s eminent return from my mind’s tastebuds. I found a delightful thread on Gracie’s Corner, a YouTube channel featuring a charming little black girl in afro-puffs singing children’s educational songs set in more diverse musical environments. Trap music with Soul stylings was causing a little white infant to shake its groove thing on a blanket in front of a TV screen. But this is not about that, either.
The scrolling eventually led to an announcement of the most recent inductees into the 2022 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After shouting for joy at the induction of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, one name stopped me in my tracks — Elizabeth Cotton. Elizabeth Cotton. I’ll bet you don’t know her, but you should. And now you can.
She sits in her white cotton blouse with its prim peter pan collar, tiny bodice pleats, and pearly buttons. Her salt and pepper hair is neatly controlled, but her darkly shadowed eyes seem weary. She holds her guitar as Jimi Hendrix did, with the right hand on the neck, plucking with the left. And then her aged cracking voice sings.
Elizabeth Cotten, known as “Libba,” was born in 1893, just one generation past slavery. As a child in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she was drawn to her brother’s guitar, but that posed two problems: genre and gender. The guitar was associated with the Blues, which was considered sinful, the first in a string of musical genres known as “The Devil’s Music.” This label would come to engulf Ragtime, Dixieland, Rock and Roll, and Rap, all with origins in African American culture.
The label “devil’s music” itself came from two problems, the subject matter that dealt with the harsh realities of African American life and the lives of poor whites, and the pleasures people sought to drown their sorrows. A mean bossman could be forgotten in liquor; a perpetual lack of money could be forgotten in your sweet baby’s arms.
Another problem was the prevailing idea that women were more easily persuaded to sin than men. Because of this, they were especially warned against occasions for sin, like drinking, dancing, gambling, going to theatrical productions, and singing the Blues or any secular music. This was an even greater concern in the black community as hard-working African Americans strived to prove they deserved their freedom, the voting franchise, equality.
Libba secretly borrowed her brother’s guitar, but as soon as she could, she saved up the monumental sum of $3.75 to buy her own. She bought it from the now-defunct Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog. Even though she was still a child, she earned the money working as a domestic. As she put it in a 1981 interview, “When I was eleven years old I wanted a guitar. I didn’t have no way to get it unless I went to work. I knocked on doors and I said, ‘Missus, would you like someone to work for you?’”
As soon as she had her own instrument, she began to fuse “ragtime, turn-of-the-century parlor songs, Baptist church music and blues.” The church ladies disapproved, but Libba kept on playing, creating the innovative picking style that now bears her name: the Cotten style. Not only picking with her left hand, as Jimi Hendrix would later do, but using only her thumb and forefinger.
She continued to develop tuning and picking styles for the guitar and the banjo. As she is quoted as saying: “My head was always full of music.” Around two years after she bought her first guitar, she wrote her most famous song, “Freight Train.” But pressures from the church, marriage at nineteen, a child soon after, and the need to earn a living were too much. Libba gave up active performance, serving as a domestic for decades.
The discovery of her dormant talent was the stuff of legends. After her divorce in 1940, she and her adult daughter moved to Washington D.C. One day, while working as a department store clerk, Libba found a lost little girl crying her eyes out. There could not have been a more fortuitous meeting. Little Peggy would find fame for her rescuer.
Peggy’s parents were Ruth Crawford Seeger, one of the few recognized female classical composers of the era, and Charles Seeger, a musicologist specializing in the budding field of ethnomusicology, the study of music in its ethnic cultural context. Libba came to work as a maid for the Seegers, keeping her talent secret, but after a few years, Ruth heard her playing on one of the family’s many guitars and told her son, Mike, also a musician. Mike arranged for the first recordings of Libba’s music, then within a year, he had arranged her first live performance. Pete Seeger, famed folk singer and Mike’s half-brother helped, as well, by featuring Libba on his TV show Rainbow Quest.
Demand for her music grew. She played for senators in D.C., including John F. Kennedy, and began to perform at folk festivals across the country, performing with Blues icons John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt, and Muddy Waters. Her songs were covered by Mike Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead, among dozens of others.
Here is Taj Mahal’s cover of “Freight Train,” giving credit to the songwriter.
More recently, Grammy and MacArthur Award-winner, Rhiannon Giddens, founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African American Bluegrass band, released Tomorrow is My Turn. This recording features works of Giddens’ progenitors — Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, and Elizabeth Cotten — triple threats who could pick, sing, and write songs, like Libba’s “Shake Sugaree,” her most covered song after “Freight Train.”
As it does for many women, age gave Libba freedom. She talks about using her music to get back at Miss Mary, a neighbor lady, who had lied to Libba’s mother, saying “Lil Sis,” as Libba was also called, had sassed her, which was a high crime in those days, often resulting in corporal punishment. Lil Sis created a song about the false accusation and would sit on the porch and sing the song with nobody knowing what it meant (by the way, in African American vernacular “it ain’t no lie” means “I’m not lying”):
Libba, herself, received a Grammy Award in 1985, just over two years before her death at the venerable age of 95. She died in Syracuse, New York in 1987. The Smithsonian Institution, which recorded her first album on their Folkways label in 1958, named Elizabeth Cotten a “living treasure.” And now the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has also acknowledged her as such.
Discovering this treasure of an artist was just the relief I had sought. And the fact that a supportive family is helping little Gracelyn Hollingsworth carry on the tradition of strong musical women in American music is icing on the cake, a perfect dessert for a thoroughly cleansed mental palate.