A short promo.
A short promo.
Elizabeth Cotten was a hero for the folk set of the early ’60s, an encyclopedia of folk standards and a real live link to the tunes they adored. Her own songs are now an established part of the repertoire, but for a quirk of fate, they might never have been known at all.
Born in 1895, Elizabeth began making music at the tender age of seven, borrowing her brother’s banjo while he was out, and teaching herself to play. When he eventually left home, taking his banjo with him, she went out to look for work, and saved up untill she could afford to buy her own instrument, a Stella guitar, bought for $3.75 from the local grocery store. Having mastered the instrument, albeit in her own special way, she began to accumulate an extensive repertoire of rags, dance tunes and folk standards, picking songs up from the travelling minstrels and local musicians. She also wrote her own songs, the most famous of which, Freight Train, was written when she was just twelve years old.
Like Jimi Hendrix, Elizabeth played the guitar upside down and left-handed. She plucked the bass strings with her fingers, playing simple bass patterns while she thumbed the treble melodies. Her style is utterly unique, and listening to the song below it’s easy to hear why the folkies were so taken with her. (The song’s title, Vestapol, refers to the open guitar tuning used in the song. A 1888 parlor song about the Crimean War (Sebastopol) is thought to have given rise to the popularity of the tuning and thus, after several years of Chinese whispers, given it its name.)
Elizabeth married and had a child at 15. Always heavily involved with the church, she gave up playing the jazz and blues style she loved after being warned about such “worldly” music by the church’s deacon. Bored with only playing church songs, and no doubt wanting to concentrate on raising her family, she stopped playing the guitar, and didn’t pick it up again untill nearly forty years later.
Which brings us to that quirk of fate. One day, while working in a department store in Washington, Elizabeth found a lost child and returned her to her mother. The child happened to be Peggy Seeger, daughter of Ruth and Charlie Seeger, a modernist composer and an ethnomusicologist respectively, and parents to a brood of famous folkies, including Mike, Peter, Peggy and Penny.
Elizabeth started working at the Seeger’s house shortly afterwards, though a few years passed before the family realised Elizabeth’s talent. One day Peggy found her playing the family’s guitar and was amazed by what she heard. Mike Seeger began making bedroom reel to reel recordings of Elizabeth, and eventually released her first album, Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs (1957), when Elizabeth was sixty-two. It was a massive hit with the folk revivalists, and Freight Train, the song she’d written as a little girl, found a home in many an artists set list.
Over the next decade, she began playing shows alongside Mike Seeger, and set to work on some new songs. The song below, Shake Sugaree, was released on an album of the same name in 1967. It’s sung by her great-grandchild, Brenda Evans (then only 12 years old), and has been covered by artists such as Bob Dylan, and Elliot Smith and Devendra Banhart.
Elizabeth made a name for herself on the live circuit, not only for her brilliant guitar playing, but for her humility and quiet command of an audience. She carried on playing up to the end of her life, and her music, and the styles she preserved, continue to influence guitarists and musicians the world over. Long may it remain so.
In the late 60s/early 70s, the kings of out-rock in South America were a Peruvian band called Traffic Sound. For four years they brought acid rock to the masses, and their records are now highly prized by collectors of psychedelia around the world.
Like many bands, Traffic Sound was created out of the dissolution of another. In this case it was Los Hang Ten’s, a popular covers band which the core members had started in high-school. With the addition of several prominent players from the local rock scene, as well as months spent practising and performing for friends, the supergroup now known as Traffic Sound started playing at the Tiffany Club, a swinging psychedelic hotspot in the heart of Lima. Due to their popularity they swiftly earned a record contract with MAG.
Their first single was a cover of Sky Pilot, a strange song about a military chaplain originally recorded by the Animals. A cover of Hendrix’s Fire acted as the B-side. Their next two singles (also covers) proved succesful enough for MAG to release them as a collection, forming their first album, A Bailar Go Go (1968).
Their brand of English language covers with an added Latin vibe played well with the burgeoning rock scene. This rock scene, however, was soon under attack from the military junta that seized power in October ’68. They considered rock an alienating foreign influence, and were soon shutting down clubs, and putting pressure on radio stations not to play the devil’s sound. Traffic Sound stuck to their guns, and kept going while many of their contemporaries bowed out.
Their second album, Virgin (1969), contained entirely original material, and shows a band pulling free of their influences in an attempt to create their own sound. Much like Os Mutantes in Brazil (see previous post ), Traffic Sound were not concerned with toeing the party line and promoting purely Andean music. They blazed out of the studio with a set as wigged out as anything to emerge from San Fran. The album became something of a psychedelic classic, and a serious collectors item due to a number of different pressings. It also included their breakthrough hit Meshkalina, a peon to the drug found naturally in the peyote cactus which has the same mind-alterering properties as LSD.
Meshkalina contains a reference to Yahuar Huacac, an Incan King who cried tears of blood when he was abducted by the wild Ayarmaca (also mentioned in the song). He later escaped and returned to Cuzco to take his throne, though he doesn’t sound like a good king. When the capital was invaded, it’s alleged he fled and left his sons to defend it. He “neglected even to build his own palace, something expected of an Inca.” (quote from Wikipedia.) So much for him.
Virgin features my favourite Traffic Sound song, a Beatles tinged ballad called Simple. It’s topped off beautifully with smooth saxophone and wonderfully groggy lead vocal. To my ears it’s an absolute sixties classic, a melancholy gem that deserves far greater recognition (seriously, how has no one done a cover of this yet?)
In 1970 they released their third album, Traffic Sound, which many say is their strongest. By this point they had truly left their influences behind and found their own style, a heady mixture of Andean and psychedelic influences. It only increased their popularity and in 1971 the band embarked on a South American tour sponsored by Braniff Airlines. They were well received everywhere they went, even cracking the tough Brazilian market (I was going to make a nut joke, but thought better of it.) After the tour the band switched labels and released a couple of singles before starting another album.
Like their counterparts in rock & roll around the world, Traffic Sound had started to move away from the sun-drenched acid rock of the sixties and into a darker, more political sphere. Their fourth, and last, album Lux (1971), was a much leaner beast than the previous albums, showing a growing concern with the future of Peru during a politically and economically grim time for the country. The song below shows this new leaning.
The band eventually called it quits in 1972. The members scattered, one became a preacher, one founded a radio station; only one of them continued to play music. But the four years they spent at the top of the tree produced some of the best psychedelia on the planet. Not bad for a band named after a stolen stop sign.