by Ellie Wilkinson
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten didn’t earn the title of musical genius for nothing. When Cotten was just a girl, she taught herself to play the banjo and the guitar. Upside-down. She was left-handed, and reversing the instruments made it easier for her to play. It also created a unique sound that became her trademark when she began performing and recording.
Cotten, a folk legend, spent the last years of her life in Syracuse. On Oct. 8, The city will honor the musician by dedicating a bronze statue of her in Libba Cotten Grove, a park at the corner of South State and East Castle Streets.
It’s great that Syracuse is recognizing Cotten, but if you’re unfamiliar with the folk music scene, her name may not ring a bell. Watch Cotten perform “Washington Blues” in the video above to get a taste for her music. For a further introduction, make sure you listen for her signature alternating bass style, and check out those fingers flying! Let us introduce you to Libba Cotten with seven surprising facts about this revolutionary folk singer-songwriter.
1) Not only did Cotten teach herself to play banjo and guitar, but she did it in secret. Her family forbade her from playing because she was left-handed, but that didn’t
stop her from practicing on a string instrument handmade by her brother.
2) Cotten wrote one of her most well-known and well-loved pieces, “Freight Train,” when she was in her early teens. Check out this video of Cotten performing “Freight Train” at age 85.
3) Cotten’s work and her unique musical style impressed members of the Grateful Dead, who sometimes visited Syracuse to see Cotten. The band produced several renditions of her song “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” which became popular tunes in their repertoire. Other musicians have also made tributes to Cotten, including Bob Dylan, who covered “Shake Sugaree.” Mike Seeger, Taj Mahal, and Peter, Paul and Mary continue to play Cotten’s “Freight Train.”
4) Cotten quit playing guitar after she got married, except for the occasional performance at church. She picked it up again in her 60s, and began recording and performing publicly after the folk-singing Seeger family discovered her.
5) After Cotten’s recordings began circulating, several congressmen and senators including the late President John F. Kennedy invited Cotten to play in their homes.
6) Following a performance, Cotten would often hop off the stage and give hugs to as many as 40 people in the audience.
7) The Smithsonian Institution named Cotten a “living treasure” in 1983. It’s pretty cool to be declared a “treasure,” right? Almost as cool as receiving a Grammy when you’re 90, which Cotten did in 1985, almost 80 years after she first began composing songs.