Elizabeth Cotten (aka Ella Nevill, Lilly, and/or Lillie) was born in 1893 in or near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her parents were George Nevill (also spelled Nevills) and Louisa (or Louise and/or Lou) Price Nevill. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. At age seven, she began to play her older brother's banjo; by age eight, she was playing songs. Cotten attended the Quaker School
on the border of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
At age nine, Cotten was forced to quit school to work as a domestic. At the age of 12, she had a live-in job in Chapel Hill, where she earned a dollar a month, part of which her mother saved up to buy her her first guitar from Sears-Roebuck
By her early teens, Cotten was writing her own songs, one of which was "Freight Train
." She wrote the song about the train that she could hear from her home as it arrived and departed the Carrboro station
On November 7, 1910, at the age of 17, she married Frank Cotten. The couple had a daughter, Lillie, and soon after Elizabeth gave up guitar playing for family and church
. Elizabeth, Frank, and their daughter Lillie moved around the eastern United States for a number of years, between North Carolina, New York City, and Washington, D.C.