Carrboro’s Libba Cotten, Composer of “Freight Train”

A image of Cotten with Mike Seegar from the State ArchivesOn June 29, 1987, folk music legend Libba Cotten died.

Cotten taught the world “Freight Train,” “Shake Sugaree” and a host of other songs. Her “parlor ragtime” style was no less elegant for the guitar being turned upside down and the thumb and finger roles being reversed.

Cotten was born in 1893 in an area that would eventually become Carrboro. She grew up near the railroad tracks on what is now called Lloyd Street. She wrote “Freight Train” at age 11. Her early biography reads much like those of most of the people around her: hard work punctuated by frolics, music, marriage, church and family.

She eventually moved to Washington D.C., where she found employment with composer and folklorist Ruth Crawford Seeger. While working for Seeger’s family, she idly picked up a guitar and revealed herself to be precisely the kind of native player they held up as an ideal. By then she was over 60-years-old.

Seeger’s son Mike made a project of recording her songs, releasing a Folkways record of them to great acclaim. Cotten ceased domestic work and spent the rest of her life as a traveling entertainer.

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