Description of Elizabeth Cotten's Music:
Recommended Elizabeth Cotten Albums:
Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs (Smithsonian Folkways, 2002) compare prices
Live! (Arhoolie, 1984) compare prices
Purchase/Download Elizabeth Cotten MP3s:
"Shake Sugaree" (from Shake Sugaree)
"Gaslight Blues" (from When I'm Gone)
Elizabeth Cotten Biography:
She married her husband Frank Cotten when she was 15 and had a daughter named Lillie. To help support help support her child, she started working as a maid while she was still a teenager, and all but gave up playing guitar and writing songs. When her daughter grew up and married to start a life of her own, Elizabeth divorced Frank and moved in with Lillie's family.
One day at the store, Elizabeth saw a child who was lost from her parents. She helped the child find its mother, and was hired by that family to take care of their children. It happened that was the Seeger family. It was while she was working for the musically talented Seegers that Cotten picked up a guitar and started making music again. After not playing for 25 years, Cotten started performing and recording her songs. Mike Seeger (New Lost City Ramblers) recorded "Freight Train" and more on a home recording device. Pete Seeger invited Cotten on his Rainbow Quest television show. And Mike invited Cotten to open for him and other revivalists on the road.
Throughout the '50s and '60s, Cotten performed with the likes of the Seegers, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and countless others. She appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, and elsewhere around the country. Her songs have been covered by everyone from Joan Baez to Bob Dylan, Laura Veirs and Devendra Banhart, and beyond.
Elizabeth Cotten's unique left-handed style of playing guitar upside down - her thumb picking the melody and her index finger picking the bass line - has become known as Cotten-style guitar picking. She won a Grammy Award in 1984 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for her live album titled, aptly, Live!. In all, she recorded four full-length albums throughout the course of her career, and fourteen videos featuring performances and appearances by her are available (including Me and Stella - a 1976 film about Cotten and her guitar).
Cotten died at her home in Syracuse, NY, in 1987 at the age of 92.