January 5 – Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Neville Cotten

Posted on January 5, 2016

Today we are celebrating a woman who was born on this date in 1893, got married at age 17 (not such a rare thing, back then), raised a daughter named Lillie, and worked off and on as a maid or other domestic help.

Those things are important, and honorable, but they are not the reason we know and remember Elizabeth Cotten. We know her for her music!

Cotton was raised in a musical family. When she was seven years old, she began to play her older brother's banjo, and when she was eleven, she paid $3.75 of her hard-earned money on a Sears and Roebuck guitar.

She was completely self-taught, and since she was left-handed playing right-handed instruments, she pretty much played them “upside down.” She ended up playing the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb, a style that became known as “Cotten picking.”

Cotten began writing her own songs at age 11 and continued through her teen years. But she gave up playing and writing music for years and decades – all those years of being married and raising a family, mentioned above.

It's thanks mostly to Mike Seeger
that the world knows Cotten's music!
Flash forward to Cotten working in a department store, and seeing a child who had become separated from her mother. Cotten helped the lost child find her mom—and that mom happened to be composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Soon Cotten found herself hired as a maid to help care for Ruth and Charles Seeger's four kids. The Seeger family was very musical, and Cotten ended up picking up a guitar again, relearning the instrument, and remembering her own songs from so long ago.

Thanks to the Seegers, Cotten's music – her songs and her signature style – were recorded and released on albums...starting when Cotten was in her 60s! She appeared in concerts and folk revivals, and she influenced many other musicians. Her most famous song, Freight Train, was covered by more famous musicians such as Peter, Paul, and Mary – Joan Baez – Bob Dylan – Jerry Garcia – and at least seven others! 

Cotten wrote another album's worth of songs, at least one of which she recorded with her 12-year-old granddaughter. (The linked You Tube is Cotten playing guitar and her granddaughter singing.)  Here is yet another video with another original song or two. 

Cotten continued to tour and record well into her 80s! What a great “third act”!

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