Monday, January 30, 2012

Any Woman’s Blues #18 – Elizabeth Cotten

Happy Monday, folks! A belated edition of the Monday Morning Blues is coming your way at last.

I must admit I was a bit shocked to realize that I’d written almost 20 posts in the Any Woman’s Blues series without featuring Elizabeth Cotten.  If you’re familiar with Ms Cotten at all, you know that her playing has been highly influential & that she was a fixture in the 1960s folkie scene. To this day, her song “Freight Train” is the one tune that pretty much every fingerstyle guitar player learns.

Of course, when I say influential, I should note that many players have reproduced her overall sound, but in fact, very few imitate her actual playing style, as that was singular. Cotten was left-handed, & when she was young she picked up a guitar in the way that seemed natural to her—namely, what would be considered upside-down & backwards.  These days, they make left-handed guitars (tho depending on the degree of left-handedness, a number of left-handed folks also play “as if” they were right-handed), Elizabeth Cotten came to the guitar after learning the banjo at age seven (she learned on her older brother’s banjo); again, she played the banjo “upside-down & backwards.” 

A banjo has a quirk in that the string that would be typically played with the thumb by a right-handed person is a high-pitched drone.  It’s also true that old-time banjo styles the thumb plays a good deal of the melody.  So in that sense, her approach to the banjo was slightly less novel.  But when she started to play the guitar, she came up with the odd technique of playing the bass strings with her index finger & the treble strings with her thumb—exactly the opposite of how the instrument is typically played.

Despite or because of her unusual playing technique, Elizabeth Cotten grew to be a masterful guitar player.  She also was a precocious composer—Cotten wrote “Freight Train,” as a young teenager, not long after she’d scraped together enough money to buy a Stella guitar. She didn’t become a professional musician, however, & by the time she moved to the Washington, D.C. area she’d mostly put the guitar aside. 

Cotten was working in a department store one day when a young girl became lost.  Elizabeth Cotten helped the child, who was Penny Seeger—yes, of that Seeger family.  The upshot was that Cotten became the Seeger’s maid, & at a certain point young Mike Seeger discovered that Elizabeth Cotten could not only play the guitar but could really play the guitar.  He began taping her performances on reel-to-reel tapes, & these were later issued by Folkways Records.

Elizabeth Cotten, now in her 60s, became a fixture at folk festivals from the 1960s almost until her death at age 92 in 1987—in fact, she won a Grammy Award for best traditional album in 1985 (for her Live! on Arhoolie).  As far as guitars go, Cotten mostly played Martins after her “discovery,” switching between three sizes of the 18 model: 00, 000 & D. She also sometimes played a Gibson Jumbo.

Today’s two videos show Cotten’s musicianship on a total of three songs; the first (despite the video description, which references “Spanish Flang Dang) has her playing “Washington Blues & an untitled jig—this is a live video, so you can watch Cotten’s playing. The second is her version of the great folk-blues instrumental, “Vestapol” from her wonderful Smithsonian Folkways release, Elizabeth Cotten. Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes.



  1. Yup, I was wondering when you'd get around to Libba Cotten! Thanks for bringing back some more youthful memories.

  2. Hi Roy: Thanks! My dilemma, if you can call it that, is that I wrote a long feature on Elizabeth Cotten back in 09--wrote longer posts then! Anyway, I solved the problem by simply editing that one down to about half its length & with some minor additions, re-posting it here.

  3. She's new to me, so i appreciate the introduction.

  4. Hi Christine: Oh, you'll definitely enjoy her music--thanks!

  5. This is great, John, especially in that I've been listening to acoustic guitar almost exclusively on Pandora for the past week.

    Thanks for expanding my universe!

  6. Hi T: You are so welcome! I never get tired of listening to Elizabeth Cotten--great musician!


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.