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Cotten, Elizabethlocked

(05 January 1893–29 June 1987)
  • Kip Lornell


Cotten, Elizabeth (05 January 1893–29 June 1987), folksinger, was born near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the daughter of George Nevills, a day laborer and part-time farmer, and Louise (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. Her parents’ blue-collar jobs were tied to the largely agrarian economy that supported the black community in Orange County. One of five children, “Libba” Cotten’s formal education did not extend beyond elementary school. She was attracted to music as a child. She began playing her older brother Claude’s banjo and guitar shortly after the turn of the century and taught herself to tune and play both instruments left-handed (upside-down). She was exposed to a wide variety of music during a fruitful and creative period for southern music. Blues was just beginning to emerge, and the ballads that developed in the United States, country dance tunes, minstrel show songs, and sacred songs were all commonly heard. Around this time Cotten wrote two songs—“Freight Train” and “I’m Going Away”—for which she later became famous....

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