Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1893, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten wrote her classic “Freight Train” at age 12. Above, watch her perform it in 1965.

In a 1985 interview with musicologist Aly Bain, the unassuming folk legend recalled that she’d stoke the fire every morning in a neighbor’s iron stove for $1 a day. She gave the money to her mother, asking that it go toward a new guitar. A southpaw, she flipped a right-handed guitar upside-down, and picked out bass lines with her index finger while using her thumb for melodies in a style that would become known as “Cotten picking” and be widely emulated.

After giving up the guitar for 25 years (she cared for the children of Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger), Cotten resumed playing at 68 and began her long-delayed recording career on Folkways Records. She played until shortly before her death in 1987. “She was pretty feisty, she had spirit,” Cotten’s friend Dana Klipp told AG in 1995. “Her hands became a problem, but she wanted to play—she loved to play.”

Below, watch Cotten perform “Washington Blues” and “I’m Going Away,” from the same session.

Excerpted from the February 2015 issue of Acoustic Guitar

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