Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten is an African-American female musician who invented “cotten picking” - not the physical act in the fields, but a new way of playing the guitar.
She was known for playing the guitar holding it upside down, but keeping the sound in perfect tuning. It wasn’t a rock-star stunt, but it was how she actually played her music.
Born in 1892 and a native of North Carolina, Libba Cotten (born Elizabeth Nevills) began playing her guitar, which she nicknamed Stella, at age 11. After life settled in, Cotten got a job as a maid, married, divorced and didn’t pick up the guitar again until she was 60-years-old.
While working for the Seeger family of musicians as a maid, Cotten played again, and the Seeger family recorded her sound at home. She would release the album, “Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar,” under Folkways Records in the late 1950s. On the album was the song “Freight Train” that she wrote when she was 11-years-old.
Over the next decade, Cotten played shows with big names like Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. She would perform at prestigious places such as the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. She soon brought her grandchildren into the business and recorded music with them. Cotten played until she was well into her 80s, and in 1984, she won the Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for her album on Arhoolie Records, “Elizabeth Cotten Live.”
Now deceased, Elizabeth Cotten is memorialized in the acclaimed 1989 photo book, I Dream a World, which features portraits of 75 prestigious Black women.