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Elizabeth Cotton: An Act of Kindness Paid Forward

Some may call Elizabeth Cotton a late bloomer. After all, the singer/songwriter didn't start performing publicly or recording until she was in her sixties. That may not have happened at all had it not been for Elizabeth being in the right place at the right time.

In the early 1950s, Elizabeth was divorced and working in a department store in the Washington, DC, area. When young Peggy Seeger, the child of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, was lost and wandering through the aisles of the store, Elizabeth helped reunite the young girl with her mom. Ruth was grateful, and soon she and her husband, Charles, hired Elizabeth to work as a maid. She then became the couple's nanny, helping to care for their four children and Pete Seeger, Charles' son from a previous marriage. To entertain the children, Elizabeth (or "Libby," as they called her) remembered the guitar she played as a child forty years prior.


photo by John Cohen

lizabeth was born into a musical family like the Seeger children she cared for. She was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1893. Her parents encouraged Elizabeth as she played with her brother's banjo as a child. But times were hard for the Nevill family, and Elizabeth, the youngest of five children, quit school when she was nine years old to work as a maid. When she was twelve, she worked as a live-in maid for a family in Chapel Hill, earning one dollar a month. Her mother saved the money for her and used it to buy the child a guitar from Sears and Roebuck. No one taught Elizabeth to play the guitar; she figured it out on her own and became so accomplished on the guitar that she developed an extensive repertoire of dance tunes and rags, songs typically composed for and played on the piano. When Elizabeth was in her early teens, she began writing original songs. One of her most recognized songs, "Freight Train," was inspired by a train she heard daily near her childhood home.

Photograph by Diana Davies courtesy of the Folklife for Cultural Heritage The Smithsonian Institute

While working for the Seeger family, Elizabeth picked up the guitar again. Since it had been decades since she played it, she taught herself to play again from scratch. People were fascinated when they watched her play – Elizabeth was left-handed and played her guitar upside down. During the latter half of the 1950s, Mike Seeger, the oldest of the Seeger kids, began making reel-to-reel recordings of Elizabeth's music in the bedroom of her house. The recordings were released on an album, "Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar," on the Folkways Records label. The album hit at the right time—the onset of the American folk music explosion.

Many of the day's popular folk artists not only listened to the album but recorded "Freight Train" and other songs from the album. These artists include Peter, Paul and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Laura Viers, Taj Mahal, Doc Watson, and Ester Ofarim, who recorded a French version of the song in 1965.

The Seeger family impacted Elizabeth's life and musical career significantly. Peggy Seeger, the child Elizabeth found in the department store, grew up heavily influenced by her musical parents. She took Elizabeth's song, "Freight Train," to London. The song became popular with folk musicians there, and two British songwriters, Fred Williams and Paul James, claimed the song as their composition, and they copyrighted it. When "Freight Train" was recorded by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey in England in 1956, the song became a major hit. Some said the song was one of the main influences for the popularity of skiffle, a blend of blues, country, bluegrass, folk music and jazz that was all the rage in the UK in the early 1950s. Skiffle inspired the music of several bands, including The Quarrymen, a band formed by John Lennon that evolved into The Beatles. The band played "Freight Train" in their early gigs, with John Lennon singing.

The Seeger family wanted to ensure Elizabeth got her due, and they used their influence to get the song's copyright returned to her. The Seeger family also helped launch Elizabeth's performing career. After the release of her first album, Elizabeth played in a concert with Mike Seeger at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. It was 1960, and it was the first time, except for singing in church, that Elizabeth had performed on a stage. She was 67 years old. She would perform many more times on stage, playing in concerts with some of the big names in the blossoming folk music revival. She played with Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. She played on stage at the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.

Elizabeth was encouraged by the interest in her music and wrote more songs to perform. In 1967, in collaboration with her grandchildren, she released a record, "Shake Sugaree." The title track featured her great-grandchild, Brenda Joyce Evans, who was twelve then.

Elizabeth toured and released records well into her 80s and received many awards and honors for her music. In 1984, she received the National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment of the Arts, the highest honor in the folk and traditional arts bestowed by the United States government, and the GRAMMY award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording. At age 94, Elizabeth Cotton died in June 1987 in Syracuse. Her music is still relevant today - she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just last year.

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