Elizabeth Cotton was born in January of 1895 in Chapel Hill, NC, one of four children. Her parents were born farmers, but had moved to the city before her birth . Her father worked mostly in the ore mines, and her mother was a cook and a midwife. At age eight, Libba started playing around with her older brothers banjo, eventually moving to his guitar. He tried to keep it hidden from her, stashing it under the bed, but, when he left, Libba ferreted it out. She would lay it flat on her lap, at first developing her picking pattern, and then moving on to rudimentary chord development. A few broken strings revealed her playing, and soon she was forced to go to work to save enough money for a guitar of her very own. She could play it upside down and left handed, developing a personal two-finger picking style. To learn a new song she only had to hear it once, then she could easily play it either on the guitar or the banjo.
At the age of twelve she began working as a domestic in North Carolina and soon moved to D.C. She was married at fifteen and had one daughter, Lillie. Shortly after this, Libba became heavily involved in the church, and gave up playing for 25 years. In D.C., when she was working temporarily in a department store, Libba found and returned a frightened little Peggy Seeger to her mother. They quickly became friends, and Libba spent the rest of her life as the Seeger’s domestic. During these years, she returned to her playing, slowly remembering the songs of her youth, and playing them for her charges and grandchildren.
In 1958 Mike Seeger recorded Libba for the first time for Folkways Records, turning out an album called Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar. She was well past sixty.
Cotton performed at various folk festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and the Festival of American Folklife from 1968- 1971. She continued to record and perform through the ‘70s and ‘80s, winning the National Folk Association’s Burl Ives Award in 1972, and a Grammy for best traditional folk music recording in 1985 for her album Elizabeth Cotton Live!