Elizabeth Cotten – The Mother Of Folk Playlist

In honor of Black History Month, stream a playlist featuring the influential guitarist.

By Andy Kahn Feb 5, 2022 8:12 am PST

Each week during Black History Month, JamBase will present a playlist highlighting an influential Black guitarist. With inspiration from She Shreds Media, today’s installment features The Mother Of Folk, Elizabeth Cotten.


Elizabeth “Libba” Nevills was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on January 5, 1893. Her custom left-handed picking style was developed at an early age, writing her well-known folk song “Freight Train” at age 11. As a teen, she married Frank Cotten and they went on to have one daughter, Lille. During this period the family eventually settled near Washington D.C. and Cotten stopped performing on guitar and banjo.

While working at a Washington D.C. department store, she encountered the Seeger family, who were prominent in the early folk movement, and soon after employed her. The Seegers, who included Pete Seeger, soon learned of Cotten’s talents. Mike Seeger in particular was integral in recording Cotten, which led to the 1957 release on the Folkways label of her debut album at age 62, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes. Cotten followed those with 1967’s Shake Sugaree (Folkways), 1979’s When I’m Gone (Folkways), and 1989’s Elizabeth Cotten Live (Arhoolie).

According to the Smithsonian Folkways label:

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1895-1987), best known for her timeless song “Freight Train,” built her musical legacy on a firm foundation of late 19th- and early 20th-century African-American instrumental traditions. Through her songwriting, her quietly commanding personality, and her unique left-handed guitar and banjo styles, she inspired and influenced generations of younger artists. In 1984 Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and was later recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as a “living treasure.” She received a Grammy Award in 1985 when she was 90, almost 80 years after she first began composing her own works …

Thanks largely to Mike Seeger’s early recordings of her work, Elizabeth Cotten soon found herself giving small concerts in the homes of congressmen and senators, including that of John F. Kennedy. By 1958, at the age of 62, Libba had recorded her first album, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes

Meticulously recorded by Mike Seeger, this was one of the few authentic folk-music albums available by the early 1960s, and certainly one of the most influential. In addition to the now well-recorded tune “Freight Train,” penned by Cotten when she was only 11 or 12, the album provided accessible examples of some of the “open” tunings used in American folk guitar. She played two distinct styles on the banjo and four on the guitar, including her single-string melody picking “Freight Train” style, an adaptation of Southeastern country ragtime picking.

In addition to “Freight Train,” Cotten was responsible for writing the song “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” that many reading this may recognize from the Grateful Dead and guitarist Jerry Garcia’s performances of the pair of timeless tunes. Her debut album, which was released several years before The Warlocks became the Grateful Dead, also contained her rendition of “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad.”

Cotten also recorded the song, “Shake Sugaree,” as the title track to her second album. The song at least partly informed Robert Hunter’s “Sugaree,” co-written and performed by Garcia both solo and with the Dead.

Renowned blues promoter Dick Waterman, who had booked shows for Cotten, made an attempt to get her royalties from the recordings of “Sugaree” that appeared on Garcia’s self-titled debut solo album in 1972 and the Dead’s 1976 live album, Steal Your Face, among many other subsequent official releases. According to the book, Dick Waterman: A Life in Blues, while Cotten was still alive and approximately 90-years-old, Waterman sent a letter to the Dead seeking payment for Cotten.

“I got a letter back from their lawyer showing me eight or 10 public domain versions of ‘Shake Sugaree,’” Waterman told author Tammy L. Turner. “In other words, ‘Fuck off and die. We’re not going to give you anything.’”

Waterman thought that settled the matter. The situation changed after a conversation Waterman had with John Scher, who owned The Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. According to Waterman:

“I told [Scher] the story. He was sort of [the Grateful Dead’s] East Coast manager, so he said, `Does Jerry know about this?’ I said, ‘I have no access to Jerry.’ He said, ‘Jerry would be furious.’ I said, ‘Be my guest. Tell Jerry.’

He told Jerry, and Jerry went wild. The decision was that ‘Shake Sugaree’ was in the past, but they would do one of her songs called ‘Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,’ and they would give her a $700 advance on the publishing.

[“Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” was recorded by the Grateful Dead for their acoustic 1981 live album, Reckoning.]

“They sent her the $700. She was living in Syracuse, New York, and she went out and bought one of those two-door refrigerator-freezers in avocado green. I saw her later playing in Los Angeles at a place called McCabe’s. It’s a guitar store by day and a folk club on weekends.

“She was in the dressing room and I walked into the room. She was a little bird-like woman. She said, ‘Oh, Mr. Waterman, how are you?’ I said, ‘Hi. It’s nice to see you, Mrs. Cotten.’ She said, ‘I want to thank you for helping me with my song.’ I said, `Oh, that’s all right. Did it all work out well?’ She was very serious and said, `Mr. Waterman, people come from all over Syracuse to stand in my kitchen and look at my new refrigerator.’ I said, ‘That’s wonderful. Do you tell them where it came from?’ She said, `I do. I tell them it come from some dead people in California.'”

Perhaps indicative of Garcia’s fondness for Cotten’s songs, both “Freight Train” and “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” were performed at the early show when he played among his only solo concerts on April 10, 1982. Though not cited on official setlists, an astute anonymous commenter at the Jerry Garcia’s Middle Finger website noted that Garcia strung together the second song of the opening “Freight Train” and “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie” with the instrumental recorded by Cotten “Wilson Rag.” “Freight Train” would later appear on Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s collaborative 1993 children’s album, Not For Kids Only.

Cotten is one of many Black musicians who highly influenced early folk, blues and rock ‘n’ roll musicians, particularly guitarists and banjo pickers. The 10 song playlist (with two bonus “story” tracks) below features Cotten performing “Freight Train,” “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” “Shake Sugaree,” “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad,” and “Wilson’s Rag.” There are three songs, “Shoot That Buffalo,” “Can’t Get a Letter from Down the Road” and “Boatman Dance” that showcase her signature banjo technique.

Indicative of her spiritual side, the playlist features “Sweet Bye And Bye” / “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” and the powerful “Praying Time Will Soon Be Over” that resonates with deep poignancy during Black History Month.

Elizabeth Cotten was 94-years-old when she died on June 29, 1987 in Syracuse, New York. Her legacy remains impactful as generations of new pickers continue to hear and learn from her singular style.

Listen to The Mother Of Folk, Elizabeth Cotten via the playlist below:


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