Elizabeth Cotten was born Elizabeth Nevills in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Born into a musical family, she began playing her brothers banjo at the age of eight, and soon moved on to the guitar. She taught herself how to play the instrument, but with no conventional knowledge of tunings or techniques she developed her own unique style known as ‘Cotton Style.’ She played the guitar left-handed, using her fingers to play alternating bass patterns and her thumb to pick out the melody. It’s basically Travis picking upside-down. She composed the timeless ‘Freight Train’ at age twelve when she saw a train pass her house, but it wasn’t recorded until 50 years later when she was working as a housekeeper for Pete Seeger who rediscovered her. She performed her first show at the age of 68.
“While working for a brief stint in a department store, Cotten helped a child wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Peggy Seeger, and the mother was Ruth Crawford Seeger of the Charles Seeger Family. Soon after this, Elizabeth again began working as a maid, caring for the Seeger’s children Mike, Pete, and Peggy. While working with the Seegers (a voraciously musical family) she remembered her own guitar playing from 40 years prior and picked up the instrument again to start from scratch.”(1)
During the later half of the 1950s, Mike Seeger began making bedroom reel to reel recordings of Cotten’s songs in her house. The culmination of these recordings would later go on the album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, which was released on Folkways Records. Since its release, her songs, especially her signature track, “Freight Train,” written when she was 11, have been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Matt Valentine, Laura Veirs, and Taj Mahal. Shortly afterwards, she began playing selected joint shows with Mike Seeger, the first of which was in 1960 at Swarthmore College. One of her songs, “Ain’t Got No Honey Baby Now,” was a Blind Boy Fuller song recorded under the title of “Lost Lover Blues” in 1940.”(2)
Click here to read our article Freight Train Derailed
The amazing lady in action
As with a lot of the musicians discussed here, its hard to identify any one album as ‘definitive,’ they all have something to offer, even if it’s alternate versions of songs you already know. Elizabeth Cotten’s case is no different, but to cut straight to the heart of her playing we feel these two albums cover everything you need. Completists need not worry, there is a plethora of material to collect.
Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes
Recorded in her bedroom in 1957 by the Seeger’s, this album truly captures the spirit and feel of Elizabeth’s music and technique. A must have.
This 26 track compilation of recordings from ’65-’66 contains 10 previously unreleased tracks and captures Elizabeth in her glory.
For Further Study: