Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (née Nevills) (January 5, 1893 – June 29, 1987) was an American blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter. A self-taught left-handed guitarist, Cotten developed her own original style. She played a guitar strung for a right-handed player, but played it upside down, as she was left-handed. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style has become known as “Cotten picking”.
Cotten was born in 1893 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to a musical family. Her parents were George Nevill (also spelled Nevills) and Louisa (or Louise) Price Nevill. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. At age seven, she began to play her older brother’s banjo. “From that day on,” she said, “nobody had no peace in that house.” By the age of eight, she was playing songs. At the age of 11, after scraping together some money as a domestic helper, she bought her own guitar. The guitar, a Sears and Roebuck brand instrument, cost $3.75 (equivalent to $105 in 2018). Although self-taught, she became proficient at playing the instrument. By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, “Freight Train“, became one of her most recognized. She wrote the song in remembrance of a nearby train that she could hear from her childhood home. The 1956 UK recording of the song by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey was a major hit and is credited as one of the main influences on the rise of skiffle in the UK.