Elizabeth Cotten

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Elizabeth Cotten
Elizabeth Cotten.jpg
Background information
Birth name Elizabeth Nevills
Born (1893-01-05)January 5, 1893
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States
Died June 29, 1987(1987-06-29) (aged 94)
Syracuse, New York, United States
Genres Folk
Occupation(s) Musician, Singer-songwriter
Instruments Guitar, Banjo

Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (January 5, 1893 – June 29, 1987) was an American blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter.

A self-taught left-handed guitarist, Cotten developed her own original style. Her approach involved using a right-handed guitar (usually in standard tuning), not re-strung for left-handed playing, essentially, holding a right-handed guitar upside down. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style has become known as "Cotten picking".

Early life[edit]

Elizabeth Nevills was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina,[1] to a musical family. Her parents were George Nevill (also spelled Nevills) and Louisa (or Louise) Price Nevill. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. At age seven, Cotten began to play her older brother's banjo. By eight years old, she was playing songs. At the age of 11, after scraping together some money as a domestic helper, she bought her own guitar. Although self-taught, she became very good at playing the instrument.[2] By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, Freight Train, became one of her most recognized. Cotten wrote Freight Train in remembrance of the nearby train that she could hear from her childhood home.

Around the age of 13, Cotten began working as a maid along with her mother. On November 7, 1910, at the age of 17, she married Frank Cotten.[3] The couple had a daughter named Lillie, and soon after young 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, and Washington, D.C., finally settling in the D.C. area. When Lillie married, Elizabeth divorced Frank and moved in with her daughter and her family.

Re-discovery[edit]

Cotten had retired from the guitar for 25 years, except for occasional church performances. She didn't begin performing publicly and recording until she was in her 60s. She was discovered by the folk-singing Seeger family while she was working for them as a housekeeper.

While working briefly in a department store, Cotten helped a child wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Penny Seeger, and the mother was composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Soon after this, Elizabeth again began working as a maid, caring for Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger's children, Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny. 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 relearn almost from scratch.

Later career and recordings[edit]

In the later half of the 1950s, Mike Seeger began making bedroom reel to reel recordings of Cotten's songs in her house.[4] These recordings later became the album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, which was released on Folkways Records. Since that album, her songs, especially her signature track, Freight Train—which she wrote when she was 11—have been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Devendra Banhart, Laura Gibson, Laura Veirs, His Name Is Alive, Doc Watson, Taj Mahal and Geoff Farina. Shortly after that first album, she began playing concerts with Mike Seeger, the first of which was in 1960 at Swarthmore College.[4]

In the early 1960s, Cotten went on to play concerts with some of the big names in the burgeoning folk revival. Some of these included Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.

The new-found interest in her work inspired her to write more material to play, and in 1967 she released a record created with her grandchildren, which took its name from one of her songs, Shake Sugaree.

Using profits from her touring, record releases, and from the many awards given to her for her own contributions to the folk arts, Elizabeth was able to move with her daughter and grandchildren from Washington, D.C., and buy a house in Syracuse, New York. She was also able to continue touring and releasing records well into her 80s. In 1984, she won the Grammy Award for "Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording" for the album on Arhoolie Records, Elizabeth Cotten Live. When accepting the award in Los Angeles, her comment was, "Thank you. I only wish I had my guitar so I could play a song for you all." In 1989, Cotten was one of 75 influential African-American women included in the photo documentary, I Dream a World.

Elizabeth Cotten died in June 1987, at Crouse-Irving Hospital in Syracuse, New York, at the age of 94.

Unique style[edit]

Elizabeth Cotten began writing music while toying around with her older brother's banjo. She was left-handed so she played the banjo in reverse position. Later, when she transferred her songs to the guitar, she formed a unique style, since on the banjo the uppermost string is not a bass string, but a short high pitched string called a drone string. This required her to adopt a unique style for the guitar. She first played with the "all finger down strokes" like a banjo. Later, she evolved into a unique style of finger picking. Her signature, alternating bass style is now known as Cotten picking. Her finger picking techniques influenced many other musicians.

Liner notes[edit]

  • Seeger, Mike. Liner Notes accompanying Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes, by Elizabeth Cotten. Washington, DC : Smithsonian Folkways, 1989 reissue of the 1958 album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar.

Recordings on CD[edit]

  • Elizabeth Cotten. Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes. Smithsonian Folkways, 1958 (aka Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar)
  • Elizabeth Cotten. Shake Sugaree. Smithsonian Folkways.
  • Elizabeth Cotten. Live!. Arhoolie Records.
  • Elizabeth Cotten. Vol. 3: When I'm Gone. Folkways Records.

Special collections[edit]

Video and DVD[edit]

  • Masters of the Country Blues: Elizabeth Cotten and Jesse Fuller. Yazoo, 1960.
  • Elizabeth Cotten with Mike Seeger. Vestapool Productions, 1994.
  • Legends of Traditional Fingerstyle Guitar. Cambridge, Mass.: Rounder Records, 1994.
  • Mike Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, NJ: Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop, 1991.
  • Jesse Fuller and Elizabeth Cotten. Newton, NJ: Yazoo Video, 1992.
  • Me and Stella: A film about Elizabeth Cotten. New Brunswick, NJ: Phoenix Films and Video, 1976.
  • John Fahey, Elizabeth Cotten: Rare Performances and Interviews. Vestapool Productions, 1969, 1994.
  • Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger. Judy Collins and Elizabeth Cotten. Shanachie Entertainment, 2005.
  • Libba Cotten, an interview and presentation ceremony. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1985.
  • Homemade American Music. Aginsky Productions, 1980.
  • Elizabeth Cotten in concert, 1969, 1978, and 1980. Vetstapool Productions, 1969, 2003.
  • The Guitar of Elizabeth Cotten. Sparta, NJ: Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop, 2002.
  • The Downhome Blues. Los Angeles, California: Distributed by Philips Interactive Media, 1994.
  • Elizabeth Cotten Portrait Collection. Public Broadcasting System, United States, 1977–1985.

References[edit]

  1. ^ U.S. Federal Census, Chapel Hill. 1870, 1880, 1900.
  2. ^ Demerle', L. L. (1996). "Remembering Elizabeth Cotten". Retrieved 2008-04-07. 
  3. ^ Orange County Register of Deeds Office; Marriage License Book 10, Page 268.
  4. ^ a b Mike Seeger Collection Inventory (#20009), Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Further reading[edit]

  • Smith, Jessie Carney. Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1993.
  • Hood, Phil. Artists of American Folk Music: the legends of traditional Folk, the stars of the sixties, the virtuosi of new acoustic music. New York: Quill, 1986.
  • Wenberg, Michael. Elizabeth's Song. Oregon: Beyond Words Pub., 2002. (Children's Book)
  • Escamilla, Brian. Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the people in music. Volume 16. 1996.
  • Cohen, John, and Greil Marcus. There is no eye: John Cohen Photographs. New York: PowerHouse Books, 2001.
  • Cohn, Lawrence. Nothing But the Blues: the music and the musicians. New York: Abberville Press, 1993.
  • Santelli, Robert. American Roots Music. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
  • Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
  • Conway, Cecilia. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

External links[edit]