Elizabeth "Shug" Nevills was born in 1893 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to a musical family. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children and a left hander, who started to play her brother's banjo when she was seven. At first she tried to learn with the banjo re-strung for a left-handed player but eventually returned to an upside down method and proceeded to learn on her own. By the age of eight, she was playing songs. When her brother left home, she went door to door looking for work until she earned enough money to buy her first guitar. She developed her own upside down style of playing using her fingers to play the bass lines and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style became known as "Cotten picking." Libba wrote ‘Freight Train’ when she was 12 years old and by 14, she had collected a generous array of rag and dance tunes.
Peggy Seeger took "Freight Train" to Europe and sang it at her concerts. Unfortunately, others took the credit for composition of the song. Then, it was common enough practice but fortunately when the song became a hit in the US, changes to copyright laws allowed Elizabeth to be rightfully be credited with composition of her song. The Chas. McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey version became a major international hit and is credited as one of the main influences on the rise of Skiffle in the UK.
She married Frank Cotton when she was in her mid teens, and after her daughter Lillie was born gave up her guitar playing for nearly forty years. She had built an extensive repertoire, but the deacons of her church told her she must not play "worldly music." Elizabeth learned many "church songs," but found them no substitute for the music she loved.
Many years later, she was working as a housekeeper and childminder with the Seeger family. Ruth Crawford Seeger was a composer and encouraged Libba (Elizabeth) to relearn the guitar. Her son Mike Seeger, (older half brother of Pete Seeger), over a period of five years, made reel-to-reel recordings of Cotten's songs and in 1957, released them as an album, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar (1958). Shortly after release, Elizabeth (aged 68) began playing concerts with Mike Seeger.
As interest in American folk music increased during the early 60s, Elizabeth went on to play concerts with many if the greats including: Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.
Elizabeth started writing more songs to perform, and in 1967, released Elizabeth Cotten, Volume II: Shake Sugaree. The album also featured her 12 year old grand daughter, Brenda Evans. She continued to perform with Mike Seeger and released her third album, Elizabeth Cotten Volume III: When I'm Gone, in 1975.
Elizabeth Cotten was well into her seventies when she toured America with the popular blues singer, Taj Mahal
In 1984, she released Elizabeth Cotten Live, released by Arhoolie Records. Elizabeth continued to tour and perform right up to the end of her life. Her last concert was one that Odetta put together for her in New York City in the spring of 1987, shortly before her death. Elizabeth Cotten died in the same year, at the age of 95.