She’d forgotten that she could play the guitar.
She hadn’t played since she was a teenager, back home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; since she’d gotten married to Frank and given birth to Lillie, her one and only. And in all the years since, her life filled with keeping house, raising her daughter, working at job after job cleaning and cooking and taking care of the children in other people’s homes, moving back and forth from Chapel Hill to Washington, D.C. to New York, divorcing Frank and finally settling in D.C. with Lillie and her family, it is no wonder she’d had no time for playing the guitar.
But after a chance encounter in the toy department of a Washington, D.C. store where she was employed, Elizabeth had gone to work one day a week in the music-filled home of Charles and Ruth Seeger. Seeing the Seeger’s teenage children, Mike and Peggy, learning to play guitar and banjo and hearing Mrs. Seeger giving piano lessons, Elizabeth decided to start playing again.
Borrowing Peggy’s guitar, she started trying to resurrect the tunes and songs that she’d written and learned back in Chapel Hill. Gradually, bit by bit, the music and her abilities came back to her and the Seegers took notice. Peggy got Elizabeth to teach her her dazzling style of fingerpicking. Mike, with his fascination for capturing music on tape, started recording Elizabeth’s music.
All of this started in the early 1950’s when Elizabeth, born January 5, 1895, was in her 50’s. So when Folkways Records released her Mike Seeger-recorded debut album, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, in 1958, her 63 years made her quite a bit older than the average Folk musician just bursting onto the scene. But just like any musician with a new album, she started performing: first at small coffeehouses and schools around Washington, D.C. and then in the early 1960’s at larger concerts and festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
Her songs, especially “Freight Train” which she wrote at the age of 12, and her unique fingerpicking style (soon dubbed “Cotten picking”) quickly spread and became popular around the world. Her performing and recording career lasted into the 1980’s. She became one of the most influential guitarists of the Folk era and her guitar style is used by performers and recording artists to this day who are looking for a sound that is at once gentle, propulsive, expressive, melodic and capable of providing all the accompaniment a vocal could need.
In 1983, Arhoolie Records released an album of live recordings taken from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s. Entitled Elizabeth Cotten – Live!, it was awarded the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1984. It is an utterly charming and amazing record of her songs, stories and inimitable guitar playing. Very Highly Recommended.
Elizabeth Cotten passed away in Syracuse, NY, on June 29, 1987.