On November 5, Carrboro musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten posthumously received the Early Influence Award from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation.
She joined fellow Hall of Fame inductees including Eminem, Dolly Parton and Lionel Richie at the foundation’s 37th annual ceremony, held in Los Angeles.
The Early Influence Award is given to performing artists whose music has influenced the evolution of rock and roll.
Glenn Hinson, an associate professor of anthropology and folklore at UNC, said Cotten’s music inspired musicians during the folk music revival in the mid-20th century.
He also said his music was particularly compelling to young white people of the time, who were beginning to take an interest in the blues and other forms of black music.
“They were thrilled because, in this world that featured mostly older black guitarists, there were very few black guitarists on stage, and Ms. Cotten stepped right into that role and was highly celebrated for it,” Hinson said. .
Cotten was born in the early 1890s near Chapel Hill, in an area that would later be incorporated as Carrboro. From the age of 11 until her 60s, she worked as a domestic servant in white working-class homes, Hinson noted.
Libba Cotten learned to play banjo and guitar at an early age.
After marrying Frank Cotten, Cotten moved to Washington, D.C., where her musical career began after she was discovered playing a guitar owned by the Seeger family, which she worked for.
Due in part to early recordings of his work by Mike Seeger, Cotten began performing small concerts in the homes of government leaders, including John F. Kennedy.
Because she was left-handed, Cotten played the guitar backwards. She also adopted a style of music traditional to the Carrboro and Chapel Hill area at the time.
Cotten developed a unique guitar style which became known as the “Cotten style”. She picked the strings with her left hand, which was the opposite of the usual method. She also chose the low strings with her fingers and the high strings with her thumb.
“She was definitely masterful finger picking. And in this area, that meant using just two fingers,” Hinson said.
Cotten created various songs, including celebratory songs, sacred songs, ballads and marches. In her songs, Cotten often references the hardships she faced throughout her life.
For example, in her song “Shake Sugaree”, she sings “Pawn my flesh, pawn my bed, ain’t got nowhere to pond my head.”
She also wrote the classic song ”Freight Train” when she was 11, although she didn’t start performing until she was 60.
Cotten won a Grammy for “Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording” in 1985. She continued to perform until her death in 1987.
Hinson said Cotten’s songs can be listened to as a historical record or a testament that offers insight into her difficult life.
He also said that Cotten’s oft-told story effectively erased his history as a servant to white families and replaced it with a portrayal of a gentle, masterful old woman who played a delicate style of guitar.
Mandella Younge, associate producer of Re/Collecting Chapel Hill, a history podcast, said Cotten never had the opportunity to be known until she was in her 60s, due to her need to work and to earn money, as well as discrimination. in the days of Jim Crow.
Hinson said she performed in cafes, small venues and auditoriums — and folk festivals after she gained notoriety — but not on big stages.
“I’m not sure we still recognize exactly how lucky we are as a community and as a country to even know she existed,” Younge said.
Although he left Carrboro at a young age, Cotten was honored by the city with a mural and a bike lane, according to Damon Seils, the mayor of Carrboro.
“His connection with Carrboro today is really about his musical heritage,” he said.
Scott Nurkin, a Carrboro muralist, painted the Cotten mural. Nurkin said the purpose of the mural was to bring awareness to a “luminary” like Cotten, and to highlight the fact that she was born and raised in Carrboro.
Hinson said the mural depicted Cotten as a “strong and powerful figure” and “larger than life”, rather than “frail” or the “grandmother” that history had referred to her as.
Seils noted that Cotten’s induction into the Hall of Fame is a long overdue recognition of his impact on American music.
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