American folk and blues musician Elizabeth Cotten, composer of the folk song classic "Freight Train" and recipient of a 1985 Grammy Award at age 93, began her career in music at an age when most people prepare for retirement.
At 67 years of age Cotten, known as "Libba" by the folksinging Seeger family who discovered her talent, performed live in concert for the first time. A former maid, this versatile musician was also a songwriter and guitarist. Legendary for strumming left-handed on a guitar designed for right-handers, rather than reverse the strings she would play the guitar backwards, "picking with her left hand and chording with her right," wrote Martin F. Kohn of the Detroit Free Press. Playing the guitar and banjo, using "two-finger" and "three-finger" stylings, became her musical signature. This "Cotten style" of playing the guitar has made her one of the "finest fingerpickers on record," noted a contributor for Guitar Player magazine.
Though "Libba" Cotten had not become a professional musician until she was 67 years old, she had composed folk songs and played the guitar and banjo as a child. By approximately eight years of age Cotten, then Elizabeth Nevills, taught herself how to play the banjo. Practicing on her brother's banjo, she created a style of guitar playing that, half a century later, was imitated by many guitarists across America. Libba Cotten's bass runs are used frequently by other guitarists, and her basic picking styles have become standard patterns for folk guitar." At age 11 she composed the classic folk song "Freight Train." Copyrights to the song, however, were not secured to her until 1957, some 50 years after its original composition. By age 14 she had collected a generous array of rag and dance tunes, some of which she had composed herself.
From approximately the ages of 12 to 15, Elizabeth worked as a housekeeper for neighbors in her hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a position she would hold on and off for most of her life. She earned 75 cents a month. When she had enough money saved, she bought her first guitar, a Sears & Roebuck Stella demonstrator guitar for $3.75, and kept her family up nights as she practiced religiously. Urged by the Baptist Church, however, to give up music and attend to more serious and appropriate activities for a young African American woman of her time, Elizabeth abandoned her guitar and took a walk down the aisle.