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Libba Cotten Brings Folk Music to the Masses

All this month we’re bringing you stories from North Carolina’s black history. Check back here each week day for a new tidbit from our state’s African American’s past.

Libba CottenPerhaps best known for teaching the world “Freight Train” and many other songs, Libba Cotten’s “parlor ragtime” style was no less elegant for the guitar being turned upside down and the thumb and finger roles being reversed. Born and raised in an area that would eventually be incorporated as Carrboro, Cotten grew up near the railroad tracks, which inspired her to write “Freight Train” at age 11.  Cotten moved around the country during her early married life, only to divorce and settle in Washington, D.C. once her daughter was married. While doing domestic work for the family of composer and folklorist Ruth Crawford Seeger, Cotten idly picked up a guitar and revealed herself to be precisely the kind of native player the Seegers held up as an ideal.  By then she was more than 60 years old. Seeger’s son Mike recorded her songs, releasing them just in time for the Folk Revival of the early 1960s.  


Thousands of middle class youngsters learned “Freight Train” as their first foray into finger picking. Cotten spent the rest of her life as a traveling entertainer, and she won a Grammy in 1984 at the age of 91.

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