It’s been five years since I last celebrated Elizabeth Cotten’s birthday here on sixstr stories.
I think it’s time to do so again.
On January 5, 1893, 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 – Elizabeth went to work doing household chores for a woman in Chapel Hill. On a salary of $.75 to $1.00 a month, she eventually saved up the $3.75 needed to buy herself a guitar of her own.
Elizabeth taught herself how to play. She developed a unique style in which she held her guitar left-handed and upside down. She picked out 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 for more details – 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 and continued recording and performing well into her 80’s.
In 1983, Arhoolie Records released a posthumous album of live recordings from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s. Elizabeth Cotten – Live! 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.
Here is a track from that album. Listen for yourself!
Elizabeth Cotten’s unique style of guitar playing became known as “Cotten picking.” To this day, it continues to thrill and inspire countless guitarists around the world.
Elizabeth passed away on June 29, 1987 in Syracuse, New York.