In the process of writing this post, I was feeling bad that I had not gotten my act together in time to have it be a “This Historic Day In Music” post. But then I was reminded that when my children were little (pre-school and kindergarten age), there were years when their birthdays would be celebrated three times and usually not on The Day itself! They’d have a party at school during the week, a “friends party” at home – usually on the weekend before or after The Day – and then a “family party” at home actually (and always) on The Day.
Well, I don’t feel bad anymore.
Here it is: a belated birthday celebration for one of my favorite guitarists: Elizabeth Cotten.
On January 5, 1895, in the town of Carrboro, North Carolina (right next to Chapel Hill), George and Louise Nevills welcomed their fifth child, Elizabeth, into the world.
When Elizabeth (or “Babe” or “Sis” as her family called her) was seven years old, she started playing around with her brother’s five-string banjo. When she was eleven, her brother moved out and took his banjo with him. Missing that banjo but now really wanting a guitar, she went to work doing household chores for a woman in Chapel Hill. Eventually, on a salary of $.75 to $1.00 a month, she saved up the $3.75 needed to buy herself her own guitar.
Right from the start, Elizabeth taught herself to play. She developed a unique style in which she held her guitar left-handed and upside down and she picked out her songs and tunes using just the thumb and first finger of her left hand. Before long, Elizabeth started writing her own songs, one of which she called “Freight Train.”
At the age of 15, Elizabeth married Frank Cotten. At the age of 16, she gave birth to their daughter and only child, Lillie. With her new life, responsibilities and pressure from her church to stop playing those “worldly songs,” guitar playing soon became a thing of the past.
Decades later, thanks to a miraculous string of events – see my post of January 5, 2011 – Elizabeth Cotten regained her guitar playing skills. An album of her songs and tunes – Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar – was released on Folkways Records in 1958. Elizabeth became a successful and highly-regarded recording and performing artist, working well into her 80’s. At the time, her unique style of guitar playing, which became known as “Cotten picking,” inspired countless guitarists around the world. It still does.
There are several videos of Elizabeth Cotten to be found on YouTube, though my favorites -which I own on VHS tapes and DVDs – are not.
Here is the best video I could find of Elizabeth playing “Freight Train.”
I just love her playing! If you’ve got a few more minutes, here’s another one of her playing two instrumentals. This is from 1969.
There you go! I hope you enjoyed this belated celebration of Elizabeth Cotten’s birthday.
Ta da, indeed!