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Remembering 'Libba'

I had never heard of the remarkable Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten until I wrote the obit today for musician Mike Seeger, who died Aug. 7 of cancer in Lexington, Va. His older half-brother, Pete Seeger, is better known, but Mike Seeger, who was 75 when he died, was an accomplished and influential music figure in his own right, not only as a performer but as a collector of traditional music.

Libba Cotten was one of his discoveries. She grew up in rural North Carolina in the 1890s, where she was earning 25 cents a week as a housekeeper. Saving 16 of those quarters, she bought a $3.95 "Stella" guitar at Sears and learned to play it left-handed and upside down. At age 11, she wrote the now-classic American tune, "Freight Train." Then, for the next half century, she put aside her guitar and worked, in North Carolina and Washington, D.C.

As Mike Seeger tells the story, his mother was shopping at a department store in downtown Washington, her three children in tow, when his sister, Peggy Seeger, wandered off. Libba Cotten, who was selling dolls at the department store, happened to bring her back.

It's important to the story to know that Mike Seeger's parents, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger, were both prominent musicologists. The two women, Seeger and Cotten, got acquainted, and Ruth Seeger offered Libba Cotten a job as a housekeeper. Cotten accepted and worked 12-hour days, Mike Seeger recalled. Hearing all the music in the Seeger house and noticing all the instruments lying around, she happened to pick up a guitar and play -- for the first time in maybe 50 years.

Mike Seeger, who had begun making tape recordings of traditional musicians in the Washington area, heard Cotten and persuaded her to let him make a tape. That tape led to a new career for Cotten at age 60, when she was a grandmother. The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal and Peter, Paul and Mary all recorded her music and she appeared around the world, with performances at Carnegie Hall and on TV. She won a Grammy in 1985 for her album, "Elizabeth Cotten Live!"

LIbba Cotten died in 1987. She was 97. Here's Mike Seeger performing her classic "Freight Train."

By Joe Holley |  August 10, 2009; 4:58 PM ET
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Thanks for the fine obituary of Mike Seeger and for the video. Mike stayed at my house in Ellicott City years ago after a concert at Catonsville Community College. He was a quiet, yet friendly, man and one of the great traditional musicians. Thank heavens we have the recordings, both solo and with the New Lost City Ramblers.

Posted by: jhpurdy | August 11, 2009 9:50 AM

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