Carrboro celebrated Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten’s birthday as "Libba Cotten Day" on Jan. 5, honoring her influence on American folk and blues music.
Cotten was born in 1893 and grew up on Lloyd Street in an area that would eventually be incorporated into Carrboro. Cotten was forced to drop out of school when she was 9 and began working as a domestic caretaker, and by age 12, she had a live-in job in Chapel Hill.
She began writing music in her early teens, with notable songs like “Freight Train,” which was inspired by the train she could hear from her home. But she later distanced herself from music for several decades, in part due to her marriage to Frank Cotten, church membership and responsibilities as a mother, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
Cotten’s great-grandson, John W. Evans Jr., said Cotten’s passion for music never waned, even as she went undiscovered for decades.
“She never stopped playing her guitar,” Evans said. “She kept playing at home, even when she was cleaning people’s houses for a living.”
'A hometown hero'
Carrboro Town Council member Danny Nowell said Cotten’s influence can still be felt in the Piedmont blues community.
“She was a really progressive left-hand guitar player,” he said. “She did a lot with fingerpicking that was essential for the region’s genres, across guitar and string music.”
In Carrboro, Cotten remains an important part of the town’s history and musical identity.
Carrboro plans to host its eighth annual Freight Train Blues, a series of music concerts with the Music Maker Foundation, in May. A mural of Cotten, painted by Scott Nurkin, was dedicated at the Carrboro-Chapel Hill line in 2020.
Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils said Cotten’s influence extends to the town’s wider musical heritage, which he said was more extensive than some may realize.
“She's kind of a hometown hero,” he said. "Being able to celebrate someone who's had such an important mark on music — in the United States and around the world — is a nice testament to our own place in music."
Moving forward, Nowell said he hopes people keep Cotten’s story in mind, especially with her early struggles and experiences living in poverty. He also said it's important to remember Cotten's origins in Carrboro's Northside.
"I think we need to be really mindful of who really built those traditions here,” he said.
Evans said Cotten’s story proves the importance of going for what makes you happy.
“If you continue to do what you love, and you do it without reservation, somebody might hear you,” he said. “Even if you aren’t heard at first, you can still enjoy it. Share it with your family and pass it on to your children like Granny did for us.”
Return to music and finding success
After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1943, Cotten began working for the Seegers, a family of composers and musicologists.
It was then that she returned to singing and playing music, which she attributed to the support from the Seeger family, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.
Timothy Duffy, co-founder and executive director of the Music Maker Foundation, said that if Cotten hadn’t been working for the Seegers, she would have remained unknown to the rest of the music world.
“She represents thousands of women like her that we’ll never know,” he said.
Cotten took part in the revival of folk in the 1960s, performing alongside musicians Taj Mahal and Muddy Waters at venues like the Newport Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
In 1985, at the age of 93, Cotten won a Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording — two years before her death.
Carrboro Mayor Pro Tem Susan Romaine said Cotten's story is an inspiration, especially to those who found success later in life.
“When I think of Libba Cotten, it really is an extraordinary story of someone with very, very humble beginnings,” she said. "It's a really inspiring story."
Evans shared a similar sentiment.
“You can come from nothing and be something,” Evans said. “She did what she wanted to do eventually — she never stopped playing, and she never gave up.”
Cotten’s style of playing the guitar, known today as “Cotten-picking,” has continued to be an important part of the musical world even years after her death, Duffy said.
“She used this simple, pure fingerstyle that influenced everyone from Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan,” he said. “Any folk that picks up the guitar, you know, learns to fingerpick 'Freight Train.'"
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