Posts by Carolyn Matthews

  • Black History is American History – February 9

    February 9, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Elizabeth Cotten (1895—1987)

    Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, best known for her timeless song “Freight Train,” built her musical legacy on a firm foundation of late 19th- and early 20th-century African-American instrumental traditions. Through her songwriting, her quietly commanding personality, and her unique left-handed guitar and banjo styles, she inspired and influenced generations of younger artists. In 1984 Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and was later recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as a “living treasure.” She received a Grammy Award in 1985 when she was ninety, almost eighty years after she first began composing her own works.

    Elizabeth Cotton was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on January 5, 1895. She was one of four children of George Nevills and Louise Price Nevills. Libba Cotten taught herself how to play the banjo and guitar at an early age. Although forbidden to do so, she often borrowed her brother’s instruments when he was away, reversing the banjo and guitar to make them easier to play left-handed. Eventually she saved up the $3.75 required to purchase a Stella guitar from a local dry-goods store. Cotten immediately began to develop a unique guitar style characterized by simple figures played on the bass strings in counterpoint to a melody played on the treble strings, a method that later became widely known as “Cotten style.” She fretted the strings with her right hand and picked with her left, the reverse of the usual method. Moreover, she picked the bass strings with her fingers and the treble (melody strings) with her thumb, creating an almost inimitable sound.

    Libba married Frank Cotten when she was 15 and had one child, Lily. She was counseled to give up her “worldly” guitar music. It wasn’t until many years later that Cotten, due largely to a fortunate chance encounter, was able to build her immense talent into a professional music career. While working at a department store in Washington, D.C., Libba found and returned a very young and lost Peggy Seeger to her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger. A month later, Cotten began work in the household of the famous folk-singing Seeger family.

    The Seeger home was an amazing place for Libba to have landed entirely by accident. Ruth Crawford Seeger was a noted composer and music teacher while her husband, Charles, pioneered the field of ethnomusicology. A few years passed before Peggy discovered Cotten playing the family’s gut-stringed guitar. Libba apologized for playing the instrument without asking, but Peggy was astonished by what she heard. Eventually the Seegers came to know Libba’s instrumental virtuosity and the wealth of her repertoire.

    Thanks largely to Mike Seeger’s early recordings of her work, Elizabeth Cotten soon found herself giving small concerts in the homes of congressmen and senators, including that of John F. Kennedy. By 1958, at the age of sixty-two, Libba had recorded her first album, “Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes” (Folkways 1957, reissued as “Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs,” Smithsonian Folkways 1989). Meticulously recorded by Mike Seeger, this was one of the few authentic folk-music albums available by the early 1960s, and certainly one of the most influential. In addition to the now well-recorded tune, “Freight Train,” penned by Cotten when she was only eleven or twelve, the album provided accessible examples of some of the “open” tunings used in American folk guitar. She played two distinct styles on the banjo and four on the guitar, including her single-string melody picking “Freight Train” style, an adaptation of Southeastern country ragtime picking.

    As her music became a staple of the folk revival of the 1960s, Elizabeth Cotten began to tour throughout North America. Among her performances were the Newport Folk Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and the Smithsonian Festival. Her career generated much media attention and many awards, including the National Folk 1972 Burl Ives Award for her contribution to American folk music. The city of Syracuse, New York, where she spent the last years of her life, honored her in 1983 by naming a small park in her honor: the Elizabeth Cotten Grove. An equally important honor was her inclusion in the book, “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America,” by Brian Lanker, which put her in the company of Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson, and Oprah Winfrey. Cotten’s later CDs, “Shake Sugaree” (Folkways, 1967), “When I’m Gone” (Folkways, 1979), and “Elizabeth Cotten Live” (Arhoolie 1089), continued to win critical acclaim. “Elizabeth Cotten Live” was awarded a Grammy for the Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording in 1985.

    Elizabeth Cotten continued to tour and perform right up to the end of her life. Her last concert was one that folk legend, Odetta, put together for her in New York City in the spring of 1987, shortly before her death. Cotten’s legacy lives on not only in her own recordings but also in the many artists who continue to play her work. The Grateful Dead produced several renditions of “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” Bob Dylan covered the ever-popular “Shake Sugaree,” and “Freight Train” continues as a well-loved and recorded tune played by Mike Seeger, Taj Mahal, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, to name a few.

    Elizabeth Cotten died on, June 29, 1987, in Syracuse, New York at age of 92. (Freight Train)



  • Advent Message from Dr. James Brenneman

    December 20, 2017 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    God’s Christmas Carol

    I love the Advent season.  I love sitting around a fire roasting chestnuts and singing carols. Come to think of it, I’ve never roasted chestnuts around a fire, but I love the idea of doing that. I love that we, as a community, can join in ushering in the Christmas season.

    Christmas is a “season of song that wraps itself around us like a shawl.” The carols of Christmas – “Silent night, holy night,” “Away in a manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – warm more than our bodies. They warm our hearts with melodies that last forever. Then there are those other carols that stick in our minds, but have no redeeming quality. Songs such as, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” And that odd “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” about a Grandma who drank too much eggnog and is found out in the snow on Christmas morning with hoof prints on her forehead. I’m not making this up. From the ridiculous to the sublime, Christmas carols capture the crazy silliness and deep joy of this season.

    Six-hundred and twenty years before the First Noel another “Christmas carol” was being sung by the prophet Zephaniah anticipating the advent of a new “king of Israel.”  In Zephaniah 3:14-20, he intones, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion” (3:14). “Shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart . . . (15b) The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.” In a sense, this is Zephaniah’s version of the famous Christmas carol, “Joy to the world the Lord is come. . .Let earth receive her king; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing.”

    Something in the old carol of Zephaniah is quite surprising. Zephaniah writes not just about joy to the world, but of God’s joy! In 3:17 it is God who “rejoices over [us] with gladness. . . God exults over [us] with loud singing as on a festival day!” God has a festival of carols for us! In Zephaniah’s carol, of the several words translated as joy or rejoicing or exulting — one meaning, literally, is “to spin around under the influence of near violent emotions” of gladness or “to sing shrilly!”

    You get the picture of God dancing wildly and singing at the top of God’s lungs on a festival day, exulting in God’s beloved people – a festival of carols for you and me!

    The philosophers (Plato/Aristotle) couldn’t fathom this kind of emotion in God. To suggest God might be affected by an emotion like joy was, in their minds, to lessen the meaning of “godness,” the unmoved mover, the wholly other.

    Even the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin, when commenting on this passage in Zephaniah, limits God’s joyfulness simply to God being delighted with God’s own “all-sufficiency.” For Calvin, God is simply pleased and delighted (self-satisfied) that one-day God’s salvation will be wrought upon the earth. “These hyperbolic terms [of Zephaniah],” says Calvin, “seem to set forth something inconsistent in God. For what can be more alien to God’s glory,” Calvin continues, “than to exult like man when influenced by joy arising out of love?”

    Exuberant joy, more alien to God? To such interpretations of Zephaniah’s Carol, I say, “Bah, humbug!” Could it be, rather, that God actually dances a jig of joy, exults over God’s people with utter abandonment? Yes! Absolutely, yes! God is the source of pure joy!  Christmas is not just about God’s love for us, but it also about God’s joy in us!  If the epistle of John can say, “we love, because God first loved us,” I would say then, “we are joyful, because God first enjoyed us!”

    I am absolutely flabbergasted by this old, old Christmas carol of Zephaniah’s. While we were yet sinners, God exalted in us – not in our disobedience, not in our rejections, and dissembling – but in us! God doesn’t just love us, God delights in us!

    Someone once said, “Love accompanies us, but joy befriends us!” We expect parents to love their kids, wives and husbands or fellow Christians to love each other. As Christ put it once, “what’s so special about that? Even unbelievers do that much.” Christ even expected us to love our enemies. For Christ, love seems to have a certain moral demand to it. Love is less of an emotion and more an ethical duty. As the old saying goes, “I must love you, but I don’t have to like you.”

    But, joy? Exulting over one another or the other “with utter gladness and loud singing?” Wow! That’s a whole new level of relationship.

    Here at ABSW let us not simply tolerate one another with all our foibles and failings. Let us not simply get along with each other on our different floors and across our distinctive domains. Let us not simply love one another, genuinely or out of moral duty. Let us also rejoice in one another!  Perhaps even exult, dance a jig with joyful abandonment for each other. May that be our dream for this great and worthy place we call ABSW.

    For we do have so much to be joyful for here at ABSW, not least of which are the many, many students who have passed through our classrooms — or such a dedicated board, faculty, administrators and staff, past and present company included — or so many supporters who give of their time and financial contributions. “Sing choirs of angels!”

    But…more importantly…and above all, as we enjoy this evening’s meal and sing a few Christmas carols together, let us take that old, old Christmas carol of the prophet Zephaniah and wrap it around our souls. God rejoices over you! God rejoices over me! God rejoices over us!  So yes, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!

    By ABSW president, Jim Brenneman, at the ABSW Faculty, Staff, Administrators Christmas Banquet,
    December 15, 2017 followed by celebrating anniversary years of service and carol singing.


    March 31, 2017 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    The full reunion schedule is available here – Reunion 2017 Schedule

    Reunion Online Registration

    Register by April 26

  • ABSW Reunion February Update – Online Registration Available

    February 22, 2017 ~ Carolyn Matthews

    Online registration is now available for the May 18 – 19 2017 Reunion

    Click here to access online registration