Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Nevills, b. January 5, 1893 in Chapel Hill, NC, d. June 29, 1987 in Syracuse, NY. Raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Cotten had wanted a guitar from a very early age. As a result, she saved enough to buy a $3.75 Stella Demonstrator guitar. Without recourse to formal lessons, she taught herself to play in an eccentric style using just two fingers. To complicate matters, she played a guitar strung for a right-handed player, but played it upside down, as she was left-handed. ‘Freight Train’ was written by Cotten when she was still just 12 years old. Being so young, and coming from a God-fearing family, she was told that it was her duty to serve the Lord and so put aside the guitar until the late 40s. Married at 15, she was later divorced and moved to Washington, DC to look for work. She was employed as a domestic in Maryland for Ruth Crawford Seeger, the wife of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. One day she played ‘Freight Train’ in the house to Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger. Despite the fact that Cotten had written the song many years earlier, it was not until 1957, and after numerous court cases, that she secured the copyright to the song. She recorded a number of sessions for Folkways Records during the late 50s and early 60s.

In 1972, Cotten received the Burl Ives Award for her role in folk music. She appeared at a number of east coast folk festivals, such as Newport and Philadelphia, and on the west coast at the UCLA festival. This was in addition to playing occasional coffee houses and concerts. In 1975 she was a guest performer at the Kennedy Centre in Washington on a programme of native American music. ‘Freight Train’ recorded by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, reached number 5 in the UK charts in 1957, but was less successful in the USA where it only reached the Top 40. Cotten received a Grammy Award for her final album, a live collection, and continued performing until just a few months before her death in July 1987.

by Jason Ankeny
Elizabeth Cotten was among the most influential guitarists to surface during the roots music revival era, her wonderfully expressive and dexterous fingerpicking style a major inspiration to the generations of players who followed in her wake. Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the early weeks of 1895. After first picking up the banjo at the age of eight, she soon moved on to her brother's guitar, laying it flat on her lap and over time developing her picking pattern and eventually her chording. By the age of 12 she was working as a domestic, and three years later gave birth to her first child. Upon joining the church, she gave up the guitar, playing it only on the rarest of occasions over the course of the next quarter-century. By the early '40s, Cotten had relocated to Washington, D.C., where she eventually began working for the legendary Charles Seeger family and caring for children Pete, Peggy, and Mike.

When the Seegers learned of Cotten's guitar skills a decade later, they recorded her for Folkways, and in 1957 she issued her debut LP, Folksongs and Instrumentals. The track "Freight Train," written when she was 12, became a Top Five hit in the U.K., and its success ensured her a handful of concert performances. The great interest in her music spurred her to write new material, which appeared on her second album, Shake Sugaree. As Cotten became increasingly comfortable performing live, her presentation evolved, and in addition to playing guitar she told stories about her life and even led her audiences in singing her songs; over the years, she recalled more and more tunes from her childhood, and in the course of tours also learned new material. Cotten did not retire from domestic work until 1970, and did not tour actively until the end of the decade. The winner of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award as well as a Grammy -- both earned during the final years of her life -- she died on June 29, 1987.