Elizabeth Cotten’s unique style made her one of the most original guitar players in the history of American folk music. Like many great blues musicians, she was unknown until fate intervened and she was “discovered” while working as a maid at the home of famed ethnomusicologists the Seegers. They recorded her and in 1957, at the age of 62, she released her debut album. Her distinctive guitar playing attracted great interest and she developed a following amongst the folk revivalists of the fifties and sixties. Her idiosyncratic left-handed technique (dubbed “Cotten picking”) developed out of necessity; unable to afford a guitar, she secretly used her brother’s, not-restringing but playing it upside down. Thus, she formed her way of playing the bass lines with her fingers and the treble strings with her thumb. The result is a fluid and lyrical style.
Cotten’s classic albums were re-released on the Smithsonian Folkways label a couple of years ago, including her debut Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes. Freight Train is probably her most famous tune (she wrote it when she was twelve years old but it wasn’t a hit for fifty years or so). Shake Sugaree features a great version of the title track sung by her twelve year old granddaughter.
The folk revival generated a lot of interest in Cotten. She became an increasingly popular performer, writing and recording new material, yet she didn’t retire from domestic work until 1970. The Smithsonian Institute recognised her as a “living treasure” and she received a Grammy Award in 1985.
Smithsonian Folkways have consistently been providing good introductions to their exhaustive catalogue of sound recordings. Elizabeth Cotten also appears on the American Roots Collection compilation and another good entry level collection is the Friends of Old Time Music box set. It is well worth taking a visit to the Folkways website, they have great background information on their artists and you can sample lots of tracks. If you are intrigued by Elizabeth Cotten, read this 2005 article from The Listener.