Libba Cotten--Positions/Tunings/Keys for her Folkway Recordings

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Libba Cotten--The Folkways Recordings: Positions/Tunings/Keys

Compiled by John Miller

I have long intended to do a listing of the playing positions, tunings and keys of the songs and tunes on Libba Cotten's three Folkways albums. Playing position and tuning will be shown, along with the key at which the performance sounds.  Where the pitch is slightly sharp of standard tuning, the key note will be followed by a plus sign; where flat, the key will be followed by a minus sign.  Multiple plus or minus signs indicate intensified sharpness or flatness.

Volume 1, Elizabeth Cotten--Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes

1Wilson RagC, standard tuningD flat-
2Freight TrainC, standard tuningB flat
3Going Down The Road Feeling BadC, standard tuningB flat
4I Don't Love NobodyC, standard tuningB flat
5Ain't Got No Honey Baby NowC, standard tuningB flat
6Graduation MarchC, standard tuningB flat
7Honey Babe Your Papa Cares For YouG, standard tuningF
8VastapolVastapol tuningD flat
9(a) Here old Rattler Here b) Sent For My Fiddle, Sent For My Bow c) George Buck (banjo)(a)G tuning (b)G tuning (c) G tuning(a) F+ (b) F+ (c) F
10(a) Run . . . Run (b) Mama Your Son Done Gone(a) Spanish tuning (b) Spanish tuning(a) F#- (b) F#-
11(a) Sweet Bye and Bye (b) What A Friend We Have In Jesus(a) C, standard tuning (b) C, standard tuning(a) B flat + (b) B flat+
12Oh Babe It Ain't No LieC, standard tuningC-
13Spanish Flang DangSpanish tuningG-
14When I Get HomeSpanish tuningF


  • Libba Cotten most often tuned low of standard  pitch.  I used to think this was a function of making the range of the songs suit her singing, but the tuning makes no distinction between sung songs and instrumentals.  I suspect she simply preferred the sound or feel of the guitar at a lower pitch.
  • Libba Cotten's picking approach was unusually varied.  Because she played the guitar left-handed and upside down, she would generally be picking an alternating bass with her index finger and playing melody with a thumb lead.  In practice though, she might pick thumb and index, thumb and two fingers, and occasionally thumb and three or four fingers to obtain unusual rolled flourishes.
  • Occasionally, Libba Cotten played "banjo on guitar", utilizing a picking approach like the one she used on the banjo.  In this program, "Run. . .Run" and "Mama Your Son Done Gone" both sound like banjo renditions moved over to the guitar.  "Ain't Got No Honey Baby Now" employs what would normally be played as a thumb lead, something like Maybelle Carter.  Without seeing Libba do it, it's difficult to say exactly how she achieved the effect, but logic suggests that it was an index finger lead.

Volume 2, Shake, Sugaree

1Shake Sugaree (Brenda Evans, vocal)C, standard tuningB flat
2Take Me Back To BaltimoreC, standard tuningB flat
3Washington BluesC, standard tuningB flat
4I'm Going AwayC, standard tuningB flat
5Fox ChaseA minor, standard tuningG
6Ontario BluesC, standard tuningB flat
7Fare You Well, My DarlingSpanish tuningF#
8Untitled/Georgie BuckSpanish tuningF#
9Mama, Nobody's Here But The BabyC, standard tuningB flat
10Mama, Nobody's Here But The BabyC, standard tuningB flat
11Look and Live, My BrotherC, standard tuningB flat
12Jesus Lifted Me(Brenda Evans, vocal)C, standard tuningD flat
13Jesus Is Tenderly CallingSpanish tuningF
14Buck DanceC, standard tuningB flat+
15RubenVestapol tuningD flat-
16Oh, Miss Lulie Gal (banjo)G tuningG+
17Can't Get A Letter From Down The Road (banjo)G tuningG+
18Shoot That Buffalo (banjo)G tuningG+
19Boatman Dance (banjo)G tuningG+
20Hallelujah, It Is Done (banjo) G tuningG+
21Holy Ghost, Unchain My Name Spanish tuningF
22Little Brown Jug G, standard tuningF
23Delia C, standard tuningB flat
24Ball The JackC, standard tuningB flat
25Til We Meet AgainSpanish tuningF#
26When The Train Comes AlongF, standard tuningE flat+

   * Libba accompanies the two pieces that Brenda Evans sings with a boom-chang back-up.
   * While the heavy preponderance of pieces are picked out of C position in standard tuning at B flat, there are quite a lot of pieces in Spanish.  Libba Cotten recorded more non-slide pieces in Spanish tuning than any other player out of the Carolinas that I can think of--the tuning was not widely utilized there, at least on the basis of the recorded evidence.
   * Pieces from this program that fall into the "banjo on guitar" category include "Fare You Well, My Darling", "Untitled/Georgie Buck", and "Ruben".  The two versions of "Mama, Nobody's Here But The Baby" differ with regard to tempo.  The first is slow, the second is fast.
   *"Fox Chase" is a striking piece.  I know nothing else like it in the genre.  It's starts in A minor, almost Flamenco-sounding, goes through a variety of tempo and groove changes, and like "Orange Blossom Special", spends a lot of time in the V chord.  Libba's picking here is tremendously varied and subtle.
  * Libba's version of "Little Brown Jug" has the same melody as the song Mance Lipscomb recorded as "Heel And Toe Polka".

Volume 3, When I'm Gone

1New Year's EveC, standard tuningB flat
2Praying Time Will Soon Be Over (vocal, Johnine Rankin)C, standard tuningA+
3Time To Stop Your Idling (vocal, Johnine Rankin)G, standard tuningF
4Gaslight BluesG, standard tuningE
5JennyC, standard tuningB flat
6Street BluesA, standard tuningF#
7Home Sweet HomeC, standard tuningA
8Freight TrainC, standard tuningA flat+
9Casey JonesC, standard tuningA
10WillieC, standard tuningA flat
11Boddie's SongSpanish tuningF+
12Wilson RagC, standard tuningA flat+
13When I'm GoneC, standard tuningD flat+

   *Johnine Rankin, one of Libba Cotten's granddaughters, is a wonderful singer with a beautiful alto voice and a measured delivery that suits her grandmother's music particularly well.  Her vocal feature, "Time To Stop Your Idling", bears a pretty strong resemblance to the spooky Bill Monroe Gospel number, "Get Down On Your Knees And Pray".
   *Libba Cotten's low tuning is more pronounced on this recording than any of her other Folkways albums, with several songs tuned a minor third low and a couple tuned a full major third low.
   *"Street Blues" is certainly a one-of-a-kind number, both for Libba Cotten's repertoire and in the genre as a whole.  Libba played it out of A in standard tuning (a minor third low), working out of a closed F position at the fifth fret, much as Rev. Davis would use a closed F position to play in G. It has some novel touches, including a Spanish-sounding flat II chord, and a chromatic chordal walk-down from A to E.
   * "Willie", about a young friend of Libba Cotten's who was murdered by one of his friends when still a young boy, is musically very similar to the Carter Family's "Cannonball Blues".

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