When I have moments of defeat, of thinking that I am too old to continue pursuing my dreams, I remember Elizabeth Cotten. Here's an article I wrote, some years after interviewing her at her home in Washington, DC. It appeared in the July 1985 issue of HOT WIRE Journal of Women's Music & Culture.
Elizabeth Cotten wins
Grammy at age 93
The music industry must be commended for one small yet progressive step in its belated acknowledgement of Elizabeth Cotten's greatness. Recipient of a 1985 Grammy Award in the Traditional Ethnic Record category for her album Elizabeth Cotten Live (Arhoolie Records). Ms. Cotten is one of the few women who plays an instrument as well as sings ever to be honored by the National Academy for the Recording Arts and Sciences.
Born January 5, 1893 (or 1895) in Silal City, NC, Elizabeth Cotten is a storehouse of history, which she willingly shares during and outside her performances. Her velvet touch and superb technique on both guitar and banjo are amazing and inspiring. Of the "folk music" label attached to her work she says, "Whether it's jazz or blues or whatever, when you write your own songs, I call that 'folk music'."
Ms. Cotten attended school only as far as the fourth grade. Although she didn't realize it until the time she was in school, she didn't really have a name. Her family called her "Sis" and "Li'l Sis." Even the teacher called her "Li'l Sis" until the day she asked the child, "Don't you have a name?" The child responded that her name was Elizabeth. "That day I named myself." Elizabeth Cotten recalls.
Elizabeth Cotten had an older brother who played banjo. When quite young she would take his instrument off the wall and try to pick out songs. Invariably she would end up breaking some strings. When her brother would return home, Elizabeth would hide under the bed, afraid of what he would do upon discovering the broken strings. He never acknowledged the damage. Instead he allowed his sister to continue exploring the banjo, breaking more strings and developing a unique style of playing in the process.
Elizabeth Cotten's approach to her instrument has been widely imitated and is referred to as "Cotten picking." Ms. Cotton is left handed and, as a child, didn't know that left-handed guitarists reverse the standard position of the strings. She just turned her instrument upside down and played. To this day, she plays with the lower-pitched strings on the bottom instead of the top.
While young Elizabeth was picking out other people's songs on her brother's banjo, she was composing her own tunes as well. "Freight Train," perhaps her most famous composition, was created when she was ten or eleven years old. Ms. Cotten recalls being inspired to write this song as she stood in her back yard in Chapel Hill, NC, watching the passing trains. "Freight Train," a child's creation, has been recorded by several artists and sung by multitudes.
This creative youngster was determined to have her own instrument and, by the age of 12, found a way to get her first guitar. After her mother would leave for work, Elizabeth would get dressed and knock on doors, asking if people needed someone to work for them. One woman asked, "What can a little girl like you do?" but gave her a chance to prove herself. She started off with a salary of 75 cents a month, which was later increased by 25 cents.
Elizabeth asked her first employer to buy her a guitar, which cost $3.25. Elizabeth named this guitar Stella and, she says, "I loved Stella better than I loved myself...I used to sleep with her." After working all day, she would play her guitar all night, or until her mother forced her to go to bed.
Elizabeth Cotten's playing, singing, and composing never stopped, buy her means of support was almost always domestic work. She says, "I didn't know how to do anything else." One family she worked for in Washington, DC, for over 30 years was that of musicologists Charles and Ruth Seeger. Their children Pete, Mike, Peggy, and Penny all became folk performers. Elizabeth shared her musical gifts with the Seegers, who eventually convinced her to perform her music publicly. So in 1962, as she neared 70 years of age, Elizabeth Cotten started performing at folk festivals and in coffeehouses, while still doing domestic work. When the number of engagements greatly increased, she was able to survive totally on her income from music.
Ms. Cotten continued to perform until shortly before death in 1987. She was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow and by the Smithsonian Institution as a "living treasure." Her music lives on and is still performed widely. I feel honored to have spent a little time with her.