Tuesday, May 08, 2007

'Cause I can play this here guitar, Pt. 10

Mandatory reportoire for any aspiring fingerstyle guitarist is the chestnut, "Freight Train". But sadly, few know the song's composer and real history:
Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (January 5, 1895 - June 29, 1987) was an American musician. Her style was traditional blues and folk, but was original since she was self-taught, and had no knowledge of traditional guitar tunings (eg. standard 'EADGBE' tuning or any standard, established open tunings).

Cotten was born in Carrboro, North Carolina to a musical family; her parents were George Nevills and Louise Price Nevills. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. She began writing music while toying around with her older siblings instruments, sometimes having to sneak into her older brother's room to lay the hidden guitar across her lap and play. After more tinkering with these instruments she began playing the guitar upside down, since 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 is known as "Cotten Picking". By age 8 she was playing songs, and after scraping together some money she bought her own guitar, which she named "Stella".

She possessed the remarkable ability to play a song exactly after hearing it only once. By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, "Freight Train", would go on to be one of her most recognized.

Here is a video of Libba in the '60s, with Pete Seeger:

And here she is, in '87, not long before she died. How many shredders, rockers, and guitar pyrotechnicians are still relevant at age 92?

Yeah, that's what I thought:

Two things for guitarists to consider: She wrote "Freight Train" when she was 12; and she played a credible fingerstyle guitar backwards, holding a traditional strung instrument upside down because whe was left-handed.

Thus, she had to completely re-engineer her playing. Instead of thumb doing bass-chord and fingers doing melody, she did the opposite: fingers doing bass-chord, and thumb playing the melody.

So what? Try it. And feel humbled. This wonderful woman had no local music store, no "Guitar Player" magazine, no MTV to show her what to do. Yet she created a piece, and a legacy, of music, that will live on forever.

Here are a few more videos:

By the way, there is a great program called TubeSock, that allows downloading and saving of YouTube and DailyMotion Flash videos to Mac & PC. While I leave the copyright issues to others, here is the link: http://stinkbot.com/Tubesock/