Syracuse’s First Living Treasure, Libba Cotten, Headed to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Her amazing story of music was an inspiration, and her style so unique that other musicians refer to it by her name - 'Cotten Picking'.
Elizabeth 'Libba' Cotten was named the City of Syracuse's Frist Living Treasure back in 1983, at the age of 90, when the city also dedicated the Libba Cotten Groove on South State Street. The Grove has also included a large statue of the Folk legend who went on to win a Grammy Award for her album, Libba Cotten LIVE, in 1985, when she was 92-years-old.
While her rise to musical fame so late in life is astonishing in itself, even more incredible is the story of how that reality came to be. .
Cotten was born in North Carolina in 1893 and as a very young child taught herself how to play the banjo. Because she was left-handed, she taught herself to play the instrument upside-down, a unique finger-picking style that became known as 'Cotten-Picking', as described in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's bio of Cotten:
Cotten began composing music as a child, bringing together strains of oral traditions, church singing, ragtime, popular songs, and music played by traveling and local musicians. She quickly mastered the guitar and banjo, developing a distinctive fingerpicking guitar technique that later became widely known as "Cotten style" or "Cotten picking." Being left-handed, she taught herself to play the instrument upside-down, picking the bass strings with her fingers and treble strings with her thumb. Consequently, while Cotten's guitar style has been widely imitated, her sound is nearly impossible to replicate.
After having not picked up a guitar or banjo for some four-decades, Cotten began playing one day while in front of a family she worked for at the time as a nanny. She preformed the song she wrote as a child, 'Freight Train.'
In another twist of fate, that family she worked for and was strumming in front of that day was the Seeger Family, as in Peter Seeger, one of the most prolific American Folk singers and songwriters known for hits like 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone', and 'If I Had A Hammer', among others.
As reported by Syracuse.com ahead of the unveiling of Cotten's statue in Syracuse in 2010:
In middle age, in the 1940s, she took a job doing domestic work for a family of musicians. Cotten told interviewers over the years that one day she picked up a guitar in the house, took it into the dining room and started to play a song she says she wrote as a child, "Freight Train." Two of the children of the family heard her. They were Mike and Peggy Seeger. Pete was another sibling.
Cotten found herself among some of the most influential people in the emerging folk scene. She was launched. She played her first public performance when she was about 60 years old.
Cotten's legacy lives on not only in her own recordings but also in the many artists who continue to play her work. The Grateful Dead produced several renditions of "Oh, Babe, It Ain't No Lie," Bob Dylan covered the ever-popular "Shake Sugaree," and "Freight Train" continues as a well-loved and recorded tune played by Mike Seeger, Taj Mahal, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, to name a few.