The Grammy winning artist who spent her final years on West Ostrander Avenue

With yesterday’s release of the 2017 Grammy nominees, it made me think of one of our most famous musicians, Elizabeth (Libba) Cotten. Cotten was a Grammy Award winning folk singer and songwriter. She was born in North Carolina in 1893 to a musical family, but because she was left-handed, they believed it was unnatural for her to play guitar. Cotten instead taught herself how to play using her brothers right-handed banjo when no one else was home. Essentially, she played holding it upside down. She would pick the bass strings with her fingers and the treble with her thumb, creating a never before heard sound. At the age of 11, Cotten saved up enough money to purchase her own guitar, and that same year she wrote what would become her most popular song, Freight Train.

Smithsonian Folkways/John Cohen
Smithsonian Folkways, photograph by Mark Power

At a young age, Cotten was encouraged by her church to give up her “worldly” music and focus on her family, which she did for several decades. It wasn’t until a chance encounter in the mid-1940’s, in Washington, D.C, that she began working as a housekeeper for the family of Charles Seeger. The Seeger’s were known musicians and Cotten would borrow the family guitar and play. After hearing some of her work, the Seeger’s encouraged and assisted Cotten with playing in public. She would begin performing at the age of 60 and went onto record several albums. Her song, Freight Train, would be covered by such artists as Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary.

In 1978, Cotten moved to Syracuse to be close to family members, living on West Ostrander Avenue. In a 1982 interview with the Post-Standard, she described her move to Syracuse by saying, “Where I grew up in Chapel Hill, my mother would open her front door and go out and speak to the neighbors. That’s what I wanted.” 

A few years later in 1985, she won the Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. She continued performing right up until the month before her death in 1987, at the age of 94.

The feature photograph at the top of the page is of a memorial for Elizabeth (Libba) Cotten as it sits in Libba Cotten Grove at the corner of East Castle and South State Street. Standing next to it is her great-grandson, Larry Ellis Junior. Larry was driving by while I was visiting the site and stopped to chat, creating the above pictured moment, last winter.

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David is a nonprofit manager living in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse. He began telling historical tales on his Instagram account, @SyracuseHistory in 2013 and co-founded in the fall of 2016.