Thursday, October 14, 2010

Guitar Workshop: Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1895-1987) grew up poor in rural North Carolina, and spent most of her life in obscurity as a housemaid, only to be "discovered" by her employer, a folklorist and ethnomusicologist by the name of Charles Seeger. It was his son, folk singer/instrumentalist Mike Seeger, who first recorded the song she wrote as a little girl. “Freight Train” was later recorded by many other artists, including Peter, Paul, and Mary. Yours truly recalls seeing this number in the Peter Paul and Mary Songbook, with the name "Milton Okum" (their producer) as the author. The story goes that Libba actually confronted the trio at an airport during the height of their fame, and accused them of stealing her song. One would imagine that these Champions of the Downtrodden eventually worked things out with her.

The first video clip is an early television appearance with Mike's half-brother, Pete Seeger. Notice that she plays left-handed. What is less noticeable, is that she does not reverse her strings, making her one of a mere handful of notable left-handed players who do not, which gave birth to her own unique style of playing, playing the bass line with her fingers and the melody with her thumb, as opposed to the other way around. In this second clip, the instructor provides four versions of the song, starting with the simplest. This is one of the most popular songs for the beginning fingerstylist. Eventually, the student gets to jazz things up a bit. The prospect of making a tune into one's own is possible even for the novice player.

Of course, we save the best for last. In the third clip, the instructor shows you some Chet Atkins-style moves. Notice the use of barre chords for the G, C, and E7 respectively. Pay special attention to the F chord with the walking bass. In our next installment of Guitar Workshop, we'll explore the style of "Mister Guitar" a bit further. Meanwhile, for more on the life and legacy of Elizabeth Cotten, there is this piece by L L Demerle entitled "Remembering Elizabeth Cotten" (including a brief mention of how credit of the song actually did make its way back to her).

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