If her widespread influence counted for as much as it should, Elizabeth Cotten would have made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long, long ago. But better late than never. This past May brought news that the late great Piedmont blues-woman will be enshrined as an “Early Influence,” part of a 2022 Hall of Fame class that also includes everybody from the 1980s new-wave group Duran Duran to country legend Dolly Parton. The induction ceremony is scheduled for Nov. 4 in Los Angeles.
Even if Hall of Fame recognition is only now happening belatedly, Cotten has long been a presence in her old Orange County stomping grounds. She was a native, born in a family of former slaves in 1893 on Lloyd Street in Carrboro (although it was called West End back then). Cotten spent her early formative years there, and you’ll find plenty of memorials to her memory around Carrboro – enough to comprise a nice little Elizabeth Cotten tour. Here are some of the major landmarks.
Mural on exterior wall of Cut Above Barber Shop, 111 N. Merritt Mill Road in Carrboro. Part of the North Carolina Musicians Mural project, this was painted in 2020 by Scott Nurkin, a professional mural painter who also plays drums in local bands including Birds of Avalon and Dynamite Brothers.
Mural on interior wall of Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle nightclub, 300 E. Main St. in Carrboro. This was painted by local artist Laird Dixon, who also plays guitar in Zen Frisbee. The mural has occupied various walls around the Cradle since it opened in its Carrboro location in 1993, and will no doubt be moved if and when the Cradle ever relocates.
Libba Cotton Bikeway. Running between South Merritt Mill Road and Roberson Street, this bike trail covers just over one-third of a mile
Historical marker by the old train station at East Main and Roberson streets in Carrboro. This marker was erected in 2013 just across the street from Cat’s Cradle, the location inspired by Cotten’s authorship of “Freight Train” — the oft-recorded Piedmont blues classic “Freight Train,” covered by everyone from Joan Baez to The Beatles (in their Quarrymen days).
Freight Train Blues. A free concert series named after Cotten’s iconic song, Freight Train Blues is in its eighth year. This year’s model began in June and has two shows at Carrboro Town Commons in June — La Banda de los Guanajuatenses with Joe Troop and Larry Bellorin on June 3, and a June 10 bill of Gail Caesar, Tad Walters and Lil’ Jimmy Reed.
If all that’s not enough, there is a wealth of material online at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection – much of it compiled by the acclaimed young fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves. The Southern Folklife Collection also curated and presented a 2020 program, “When I’m Gone: Remembering Folk Icon Elizabeth Cotten.”
Cotten’s career stands as one of the most remarkable yet least likely of the 20th century. She was left-handed but taught herself to play on a right-handed guitar (basically backwards) because that was the only instrument that was available to her. This led to a highly idiosyncratic style of “Cotten picking” that still remains almost impossible to duplicate, although countless guitarists have tried over the years.
After taking up guitar in childhood, Cotten was soon writing songs and composed “Freight Train” before she was even a teenager. But family responsibilities meant that Cotten had to put music on hold for many years after getting married and giving birth to a daughter. She left North Carolina and worked as housekeeper and nanny for a series of white families in the Northeast.
One of those households was the D.C. home of the Seegers, a renowned family of musicologists. In the 1950s when Cotten was in her sixties, the story goes, she picked up one of the guitars in the Seeger’s house and began to play. Recognizing her extraordinary talent and circumstances, they were blown away. Mike Seeger produced Cotten’s first album, 1958’s “Folksongs and Instrumental Guitar,” which made her a star of the folk revival then sweeping college campuses across the nation.
Cotten went on to a long career on the folk-festival circuit, during which she became a beloved elder. In 1984, at age 90, Cotten won a Grammy Award as well as a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Smithsonian also declared her a “living treasure.”
She would finally pass in 1987 at the age of 94. But Elizabeth Cotten’s memory will never die.