From her house on Lloyd Street, tucked into bed when she, at last, honored her mother’s pleas to put down the guitar and go to bed, she heard the trains on the tracks that cut through Main Street and sidled up to Lloyd. Chug. Chug. Chug.
It was too melodic to ignore. She drifted off to sleep with notes in her head. From those nights came “Freight Train.” She wrote the song when she was no more than 12.
This was before Carrboro was Carrboro. Before women dented the realm of folk music. Before Elizabeth Nevills, a domestic servant by the time she turned 7, was Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten. Before she was sworn into the Seeger folk dynasty, before she performed for John F. Kennedy. It was before the Seeger kids dubbed her Libba, whose singular playing style Pete Seeger would call “genius,” whose songs Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead would cover, whose career stretched into her 90s before she died in 1987.
“It’s one of those classic American stories that you just can’t make up,” says Art Menius, former executive director of The ArtsCenter.
“She is a seminal figure in the history of blues, the history of Piedmont music and black music,” says William R. Ferris, senior associate director at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South. “And as a woman, she’s especially important. There weren’t a lot of blues musicians in that tradition who were women who made a very visible mark.”
Visible? In the annals of folk history, sure. But among current locals? Not so fast.
Cotten was born in 1892, two decades before Carrboro got its name in 1913. No records exist to determine where Cotten lived on Lloyd. Her grandmother was a slave. This was segregated Carrboro, where Cotten would wander into white neighborhoods and ask women whether they needed help with housekeeping. Some said no. Others said nothing. One woman agreed to pay her a monthly wage of 75 cents.
It took more than 40 years for Cotten’s music to waft beyond Carrboro. She had set down her guitar, left “Freight Train” dormant as a childhood ditty, focused on caring for her only child, Lily, and moving passed an unfulfilling marriage to Frank Cotten that began when she was 15. Local preachers, aware of her acoustic flirtations, cautioned her about the “worldly” nature of music.
Cotten’s interregnum might explain, then, why so few know her story. Menius wanted to honor her memory with a historical marker. The town didn’t have any markers, he realized. But they did have prominent citizens.
“Being a music nerd, the first one that came to mind was Libba Cotten,” Menius says.
He filed an application with the state. And on Sept. 28, 2013, with the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and several county commissioners in attendance, the marker found its permanent home beside Southern Rail, just 85 paces from Lloyd Street.
Little else about Carrboro today beckons memories of Cotten. Cat’s Cradle, the area’s preeminent music venue, stares down Lloyd Street from the far side of East Main Street. The Chinese restaurant Gourmet Kingdom and a hair salon, Salon2eleven, frame Lloyd Street’s entrance.
Half a block down sits Rice’s Glass Company, a family-owned business founded in 1959 — a year after Cotten, then 62, released her first studio album, “Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes,” with the help of the Seegers.
“Can’t say I’ve ever heard of her,” says Jordan Rice from behind the counter.
The company’s co-owner, Sarah Rice-Wright, pipes up from the back of the shop.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” she says, “and I’ve never heard of her.”
A 25-cent raise, a guitar and “noise”
But those who have heard of Libba Cotten speak her name with reverence. When Glenn Hinson, a UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor of folklore and anthropology, learns of a reporter’s interest in Cotten’s story, he invokes an almost transcendent quality.
“May the gentleness so apparent in Ms. Cotten’s music find its way into your spirit,” he says.
Cotten’s music, as well as her style, carried an unmistakable serenity. She performed “Freight Train” in a 1985 TV interview with Aly Bain, a Shetland fiddler. Her fingers move with a stenographer’s urgency and a ballerina’s grace. She fires chords with machine-gun dexterity, but her face remains unmoved, almost comatose. It is, for her, a meditative experience.
Look closer. She’s picking the guitar with her left-hand, a musical anomaly. Inspect her fingers. She’s striking chords with her right hand, too. Then she’s picking the bass strings with her fingers, the melody strings with her thumb, and from the guitar arises a sound, “Cotten style,” as unmatched as her fortuitous ascent.
It started with a longing for an acoustic guitar. Cotten had grown tired of borrowing her brother’s instruments. She needed money, hence her forays into the white neighborhood.
“Miss, would you like someone to work for you?” she’d ask. One woman, the same woman who gave her 75 cents every 30 days, agreed. Cotten worked for her until she left the Chapel Hill area, sweeping her kitchen, tending to her vegetable garden, stoking fires in her iron stove. A 25-cent raise bolstered her guitar fund. She soon brought home $3.75 and thrust it into her mother’s hands.
“Buy me this guitar,” Cotten said.
“She didn’t get no more rest,” Cotten said, reminiscing during her 1985 interview with Bain. “I couldn’t play — just making noise.”
“Babe,” her mother would say, “put that thing down and go to bed!”
“Momma,” Cotten would answer, “I’m learning a new song.” Except that she didn’t know any songs back then. All she could do was let her preadolescent mind and precocious fingers find music on its own. Her “noise” was good enough to beget “Freight Train” before life intervened. Cotten put down her guitar.
Seeger serendipity, then an idol of her own accord
Forty years later, she had wended her way to Washington, where she worked in a department store. One day she spotted a toddler dawdling unattended in an aisle. Cotten wandered over and soon reunited the girl with her mother.
The mother was Ruth Crawford Seeger, a composer, music teacher and the wife of Charles Seeger, whom history credits with the inception of ethnomusicology. Ruth, seized with gratitude, offered Cotten a job to look after the young Seeger children at their home. The daughter was Peggy Seeger, who several years later stumbled upon Cotten playing the family’s guitar. Cotten apologized for strumming the guitar without asking. Peggy saw no reason for contrition: She saw a virtuoso in a folk dynasty’s midst.
“It was sort of serendipity, good luck, that this gifted musician would meet this gifted family,” Ferris says. “Between the two of them, you couldn’t measure the importance of their lives to American music.”
Peggy’s brother, Mike, served as Cotten’s springboard, ushering her into a recording studio and setting up small performances in the homes of congressmen and senators — including Kennedy, then a first-term Massachusetts senator. Her first record, The Smithsonian Institution wrote, became “one of the most influential” folk albums of the early ‘60s. Mike Seeger realized the walls of his home couldn’t confine Cotten’s gift.
“You don’t need me,” he said to her, as Pete Seeger, who died in January, recalled in a 2012 interview with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y.
Cotten left Washington to spearhead a folk revival, traveling across North America to headline festivals in Philadelphia, Chicago, Rhode Island and New York. The Grateful Dead covered “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” while Bob Dylan produced his own iteration of “Freight Train.” Little Elizabeth Nevills, born and raised at Carrboro’s West End, was afforded folk-star status, her sobriquet “Libba” becoming household in stature.
“She would step off the little stage, or wherever she was playing,” Pete Seeger said in 2012, “and she’d walk down the aisle, and as people started to stand up, she’d embrace them — 20, 30, even 40 people.”
Her admirers featured Menius. He, and numberless others, saw Cotten perform as a nonagenarian.
“I was born in 1955, so to see somebody playing this pre-World War I style of folk music in the 1980s when she was turning 90 years old was such an inspiration,” Menius said.
Before she died in a Syracuse hospital, Cotten garnered awards befitting of musical royalty. The National Endowment for the Arts declared Cotten a National Heritage Fellow in 1984. She won a Grammy Award in 1985, roughly 80 years after she wrote “Freight Train.” The Smithsonian Institution recognized her as a “living treasure.”
But long before, Cotten belonged to Carrboro. Her head rested on a pillow, her mind danced with songs as trains rolled by and whispered to her the possibilities, the power, of music.
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know what route I’m going on
When I die, oh, bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chestnut Street
Place the stories at my head and feet
And tell them all I’ve gone to sleep
— “Freight Train” (1957)