Thursday, January 07, 2010


Composer and guitarist Elizabeth Cotten, was born on January 5th,1895 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Though it was some sixty seven years before she would begin her professional career, her musical sense was exposed and developed from a young age. The youngest of five children, Elizabeth grew up and around eight years old began playing her brothers' banjo, and eventually their guitar, which they tried to hide from her.

Self taught, Elizabeth had a natural talent and it is believed she could play a newly-learned tune after hearing it only once. At eleven, Elizabeth quit school and saved up for her first guitar. She needed a year before writing perhaps her most famous song, Freight Train, which influenced many local Piedmont blues musicians. The song was recorded first by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and since has been reproduced by such artists as the Grateful Dead. Cotten played at family gatherings, church gatherings, and house parties where her music gradually became exposed to the greater blues community. One of her songs, "Ain't Got No Honey Baby Now," was in fact recorded by Blind Boy Fuller under the title "Lost Lover Blues" in 1940.

Marriage brought change in Cotten�s life. Her husband Frank Cotten, daughter Lillie, and the religious community would eventually cause her to cease her pursuits in a musical career. Persuaded to leave North Carolina, Cotten moved with her family to open a chauffeuring business in New York. She and Frank divorced, however, and in 1947 Elizabeth moved with her daughter to Washington D.C., where she ended up working for Ruth and Charles Seeger. Through their friendship and support, Cotten picked up the guitar again after nearly twenty five years.

In 1957, Cotten began recording with the help of the Seegers and cut her debut album, Folksongs & Instrumentals. Though she didn�t receive much immediate commercial success, Cotten played domestically at various colleges and folk festivals with the likes of major blues figures like Muddy Waters.

Her respect among the blues and folk community steadily increased and in 1970 she began to actively tour. Cotten�s music was uniquely "pre-blues;" in fact her professional debut was as a folk singer. Her unique alternating bass style is known as �cotten picking� and considered very influential among guitar finger pickers. Cotten used a normal guitar and played it left handed; she adapted to this inverted version and would play the bass pattern with her fingers, using her thumb for the melody.Cotten became more recognized as her career progressed and continued to tour throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1985, Cotten recorded Live!, which would go on to win a Grammy for best traditional folk music recording. She also won a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship award.

Ms. Cotten died in 1987 at 95 years old.
Elizabeth Cotten plays.
Wanna read more about Elizabeth? Take your pick.
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

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