A song was nagging at Libba Cotten.
It was the mid-1960s and Cotten had recorded an acclaimed debut album that made waves in folk-revival circles. She was a Black woman in her early 70s with a family to support, though, and a full-time music career was out of reach. A divorced matriarch and breadwinner for an extended clan that included six great-grandchildren, she worked days as a domestic for Washington’s upper-crust in Northwest D.C. At night, she returned to her rowhouse on Fifth Street NE on Capitol Hill to cook and clean and help take care of the kids.
No matter how bone-tired she was, Cotten would bring out her guitar — not so much for her own pleasure, but to help keep order. “Once we had our supper and bath and were put to bed, we’d be rambling around and acting up, so Granny would come in and start playing the guitar,” recalls Brenda Evans, Cotten’s great-granddaughter. “We called her ‘The Warden.’ She’d play tunes and tell stories about her childhood until we settled down.”
The song that had been on Cotten’s mind was catchy and it had a calming effect on the unruly kids. “One particular night, Granny was playing this song, and she said, ‘C’mon children, can y’all think of some words to add to this tune?’ ” Evans says. “So we sat up in the bed, and we had a good time adding verses. So all us kids took part in this particular song. Now which verse belongs to whom? I have no idea. But that’s how we came up with ‘Shake Sugaree.’ ”
Not long after, in 1965, Cotten was recording her second album and brought along 12-year-old Brenda to sing solo on “Sugaree.” In the more-than-half-century since, the song, with its childlike whimsy and surreal imagery, has taken on a life of its own. It has been covered by artists including Pat Boone, Bob Dylan and, more recently, Rhiannon Giddens. Brenda’s rendition — with wise-beyond-her-years vocals and memorable verses such as “Have a little secret, I ain’t gonna tell/ I’m going to heaven in a brown pea shell” — has a charm that time has only enhanced: In 2019, it was featured in an episode of the TV series “Big Little Lies.”
Well past age 90, when she became the oldest woman to win a Grammy, Cotten enthralled audiences with her illimitable music and storytelling. And decades after her death in 1987, her legacy is alive and well. Her 1950 Martin guitar is on permanent display at the National Museum of American History. In 2018 came a children’s book, “Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten,” by singer-songwriter Laura Veirs, who performed “Sugaree” onstage in D.C. that year with Evans.
Cotten’s latest posthumous honor comes with her Nov. 5 induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It may come as a surprise that Cotten is the first guitarist from the Washington area to be inducted, especially when you consider that the hall has yet to welcome D.C. guitar legends such as Link Wray (“Rumble” is in the hall’s singles category, but not Link himself, who’s been nominated twice), Danny Gatton and John Fahey, among others.
Even so, it is well-deserved recognition for Cotten, who is being inducted as a recipient of the Early Influence Award. She is one of a handful of female musicians in this category, joining an elite group of eight that includes jazz icon Billie Holiday, gospel fireball Sister Rosetta Tharpe and rockabilly whiz Wanda Jackson. According to a statement from the Hall of Fame, Cotten earned her induction because “her intimate recordings and performances inspired generations of artists and her technical prowess and musical inventiveness influenced countless guitar players.”
Few would deny the enduring influence of Cotten’s signature song, “Freight Train,” a fingerpicking tour de force from her debut album that still dazzles today. Composed when she was age 11, the song became a folk standard in the late 1950s and ’60s. It exemplifies her guitar style, known as “Cotten-picking,” which has a pulsating, syncopated rhythm akin to the rippling of a mountain stream. Even today, it’s one of the first songs novices learn to play on acoustic guitar, with Cotten’s version garnering 2.7 million views on You Tube.
In tandem with her singing, which at times barely hovers above a soft murmur, Cotten’s music can have a mesmerizing effect, as if inviting you to eavesdrop on an intimate conversation between voice and guitar. As often as not, it’s a dialogue touching on life’s abiding mysteries. “When I’m dead and I’m in my grave, no more good times here I crave,” she sings in “Freight Train,” inspired by the sounds she heard at night near her childhood home. “Place the stones at my head and feet, and tell them all that I’ve gone to sleep.”
The forging of her sui generis sound was an uphill battle from the start. Like other Rock Hall-of-Famers, from Elvis Presley to Johnny Rotten, Cotten was a rebel from the wrong side of the tracks who reinvented herself. She enjoyed telling audiences that she taught herself to play in her distinctive left-handed, upside-down technique by stealing private moments on her brother’s banjo and guitar. She was also proud to say she’d named herself. Growing up near Chapel Hill, N.C., she was known to family as “Babe” and “Lil’ Sis” until one day at school her teacher asked what her name was and she blurted out “Elizabeth.”
She worked cleaning houses to buy a $3.75 Stella guitar, and it became her constant companion. After her marriage at age 15, she was told by church elders to stop performing music because it did not serve God. Then came the demands of motherhood, so she put away her guitar and abandoned her musical pursuits for more than three decades.
By the late 1940s, Cotten had divorced her husband and was raising her family in D.C. Her chance encounter in 1948 at Lansburgh’s department store — when she was working as a clerk and reunited a lost 10-year-old Peggy Seeger with her mother, Ruth, and was hired as a housekeeper soon thereafter — is the stuff of legend. The Seegers, headed by musicologist Charles and composer Ruth, and including Peggy’s brother, Mike, and stepbrother, Pete, were the first family of American folk music. The serendipitous encounter was life-changing.
What is often overlooked, though, is that Cotten worked five years in the Seeger home in tony Chevy Chase before her talent was discovered, and, even then, it was discovered by accident. It speaks volumes about the racial divide of the era that in a house filled with music and instruments, Cotten did not feel it was her place to mention her musical prowess. Even so, she couldn’t resist returning to her first love in her spare moments.
“The family guitar was hung on a wall in the kitchen. I came in after school one day and found Libba playing it left-handed, index finger swinging away doing the job of the thumb, her thumb relegated to fingerdom,” wrote Peggy in her 2017 memoir about the moment she found Cotten playing “Freight Train." “She dragged songs out of her childhood, polished them up and sang them on Saturdays. Her church in North Carolina had deemed guitar playing unsuitable for a married woman so, a girl bride, Libba had laid the instrument down by the riverside. The Lord is fond of second comings. Libba picked up the guitar once more in a Chevy Chase kitchen and she damn well wasn’t going to lay it down again.”
Mike bought a guitar for “Libba,” a nickname from the Seeger family that stuck. In 1957, he produced her first album, “Negro Folk Songs and Tunes,” recorded on a portable tape machine at her house; it introduced “Freight Train” to the world. Starting in 1960, he also introduced the 67-year-old to folk-revival audiences in concerts at colleges and festivals. Another early booster was a young John Fahey of Takoma Park, who often chauffeured Cotten to local picking parties; he recorded an homage, “Libba’s Rag,” in the late 1950s.
Meanwhile, Peggy took her five-string banjo to England and made “Freight Train” a staple of her live shows as she launched her own career. It soon became a favorite in the British folk-music scene and a radio hit; it even made it into the repertoire of Liverpool skiffle band, the Quarrymen, sung by a teenage John Lennon.
Cotten’s second album, “Shake Sugaree,” was released in 1967 and featured Brenda Evans on both the title track and a gospel song, “Jesus Lifted Me.” Most of the album, produced by Mike Seeger for Folkways, was recorded at the spacious and ornate Alexander Hall, a castle-like Victorian Gothic building with a 900-seat auditorium famous for its acoustics, at Princeton University. “I might have been a little nervous before we started, but once I got onstage next to her, it all left me,” says Evans, who was just a middle-schooler at the time. “It soothed me whenever she and I performed together.”
Many critics consider the album Cotten’s best work, showcasing how she adapted traditional styles to fit her unschooled, intuitive approach to the guitar and banjo (featured on several songs). It was her own painstaking, D.I.Y. distillation of the wellsprings of American music: from mid-19th-century Black songster traditions to urban ragtime and parlor tunes and other popular music of her childhood in the early 1900s, as well as the spirituals and blues and dance tunes she heard in rural North Carolina.
In 1968, Cotten went on a tour of the South with Mike Seeger and his then-wife, musician Alice Gerrard. It was a package tour with a grass-roots mission to connect with working-class people. Along with Cotten, featured performers included fellow septuagenarian Dock Boggs, a banjo legend from the coal fields of southwest Virginia who called her “Miss Elizabeth.”
The musicians traveled in a van together, and Gerrard found in Cotten an easygoing road companion with a “regal” presence both onstage and off. In a way, it was an extended homecoming for the girl who left the South so young, as if she was now reclaiming her birthright. “She was quietly charismatic,” says Gerrard. “She wasn’t at all showy. She was very elegant and very dignified.”
In the 1970s, Cotten was finally able to make music her full-time occupation. She had begun to hone her stage routine with a polished showmanship, a far cry from the shy, demurring woman whose first audience two decades ago were high-powered politicos at the Seeger home. Along with her guitar virtuosity, she began to pepper her shows with anecdotes from her life, presenting herself as an example of quiet resilience.
Cotten attracted a diverse fan base across the country. Evans remembers a show at the Sisterfire festival in Takoma Park in 1983, an outdoor celebration of women artists and musicians. “So we get up onstage and we look out at the crowd and we see all these women, and some are nude from the waist up, ” Evans recalls with a laugh. “And we realize it’s a lesbian festival! Granny looks at me and I’m looking at her and she says, ‘Well, Sweetie Pie, I didn’t know anything about this!’ ”
Members of Cotten’s inner circle saw glimpses of her wry sense of humor and sharp tongue. In the liner notes to the 2004 CD reissue of “Shake Sugaree,” her longtime manager John Ullman recalled an incident that revealed the unique perspective of a Black woman born in 1893. At airports, a wheelchair often awaited Cotten, although she didn’t care for being treated like an invalid. Once, as Mike Seeger wheeled her through the concourse, they were greeted with curious stares. “Mike,” she said. “Do you know why all those people are looking at us? They’re thinking, ‘Why is that young white man pushing that old Negro lady? She should be pushing him!’ ”
Her concerts were celebratory sing-a-longs as she invited — often telling instead of asking — the audience to join in. One of her favorites was another song written in her childhood, “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie.” It is about a next-door neighbor who spread false rumors about Cotten. One line declares bluntly, “Well, I wish to my soul that old woman would die,” and she had fun getting the crowd to sing it with her. In a performance in 1975, she paused mid-song to say, “I’ve given y’all this so if somebody mistreats you, just sing this song, and it’ll make you feel better, y’hear?”
It sums up for many why the music of Libba Cotten never gets old.
Eddie Dean is a writer in Maryland.