Little Known Black History Fact: Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten

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Grammy Award Winner Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (born Elizabeth Nevills) was a black American blues guitarist who invented “cotten picking.” She picked the guitar strings with the instrument upside down, and kept the sound in perfect pitch.

Born in 1892, the North Carolina native began playing her guitar, which she knick-named Stella, at age 11. She also started writing her own music. But soon, Cotten would have to go to work for a living as a maid. She then married and divorced, not returning to the guitar again until she was 60 years old.

Years later, while working as a maid for the Seeger family, who were musicians, Libba played again and the Seeger family recorded her sound at home. She released the album “Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar”, under Folkways Records in the late 1950’s. On the album was the song “freight train” that she had written 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 performed at prestigious music events like the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. She later included her grandchildren in her performances and recorded music with them.

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