In the early 1900s, a black girl living in Carrboro composed a mournful song about a freight train, picking out her tune on a three-dollar guitar.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten grew up to leave that guitar behind, to marry at age 15, have a baby and become a housekeeper and nanny for well-to-do white families. For decades, her work subdued her passion for making music.
Her gift for music was rediscovered in mid-century. By then, she was a grandmother secretly plucking notes on an instrument that hung inside the suburban family home where she worked.
This spring, Cotten's folk song was named one of the most significant works in recorded history, joining the U.S. Library of Congress' national recording registry.
The album “Freight Train And Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes,” first released in 1958, joins 249 other recorded songs, spoken-word albums and political speeches honored for their cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.
Historians say Cotten's recording is among the few remaining examples of women's parlor music popular in the early 20th century.
Who knows what might've been lost had chance not sent Cotten to work outside Washington for one of the most renowned family names in folk music, the Seegers?
Mike Seeger was a teenager when his sister, Peggy, heard their mother's housekeeper picking out tunes on a guitar.
“When she first played, it was one of those experiences that you never forget the feeling of,” Mike Seeger recalled in an interview last month “because it was very down-to-earth music but very refined at the same time.”
The teenagers were enchanted. Can you teach us to play? Mike Seeger asked.
No, Cotten answered. But I can show you what I do.
Cotten showed how she played, left-handed, holding the guitar upside down and strumming upward.
She showed her delicate style of picking strings and taught Seeger how to sing “Freight Train.”
In 1958, Seeger recorded Cotten with a microphone as she sat in the bedroom of her home in Washington, a cluster of grandchildren at her feet.
He helped Cotten sell the recording to a New York label for $50, plus royalties of 25 cents an album.
He took her on tour to folk festivals with his band, The New Lost City Ramblers.
In 1984, she won a Grammy for a live album. She was thought to be 90 years old. She died three years later.
“From my point of view, she just took it all in stride and loved it,” Seeger said.