Elizabeth Cotten was a heroine 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.