Elizabeth Cotten’s voice goes down like warm honey: heavy, sweet, and smooth, yet laced with an almost imperceptible grittiness—a dark and earthy undertone that suggests knowledge of something far deeper than the sugary taste implies. If the blues take their roots in the melancholy of an unlikely hope, then one might argue that the stories of all blues musicians are the product of tinctured past and pain, but even among these, Elizabeth Cotten’s story stands apart. Her history, much like her music, is a complex mixture of rhythm, joy, and the pulling tug of a peripheral sadness, of nostalgia for something never quite known. Hers is a story of a passion forged early, snuffed too soon, and rekindled in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Elizabeth Cotten was born into the heart of the Carolina foothills, an area famed for its lush landscape, signature drawl, and the inimitable character of its music. True to the tenor of the region, Cotten grew up to the tune of homemade instruments, happily marching along to the joyful rumpus of her four siblings’ cornstalk fiddles and paper-comb kazoos. From an early age, however, Elizabeth had set her sights on something bigger. Her brother’s prized possession, a well-loved banjo he kept strung, tuned, and safely hidden—or so he thought—beneath the bed, called young Elizabeth’s name, and when her brother left for work, she couldn’t resist tiptoeing into his room and pulling the banjo from beneath the bed to pluck and wonder at the strings. After a fair amount of lip chewing, trial, error, and consternation—and despite the fact that she kept exuberantly tightening (and breaking) her brother’s strings—seven-year-old Elizabeth had taught herself to make sense of the instrument.
Elizabeth’s self-instruction resulted in a style and sound unlike any other. Since she was left-handed—and the banjo strung for a right-handed player—she played the instrument “upside-down,” plucking the bass strings with her fingers and catching the treble with her thumb. By the time Elizabeth had saved up enough money to purchase her own instrument, she had perfected the technique; rumor had it that she only had to listen once to any of the region’s rags, standards, or dancehall tunes before she could translate them into the unique language of her own Stella guitar. By age twelve she had written what would later become one of the most recognizable songs of the folk-revival, a bass heavy thrum inspired by the steady, somnolent rumble of the trains that passed by her bedroom window at night.
Though her song “Freight Train” was destined for greatness, however, it was nearly fifty years before it was heard anywhere beyond the front steps of Cotten’s childhood home.
Like many before and after her, Cotten married young, had a child, and sought out the cloistered comfort of the community church. Unfortunately, the church’s welcome came with a high price tag: there was little room for debate when it came to the effects of worldly music on godly people, and Cotten was urged to trade the toe-tapping tunes of her youth for the dulcet sweetness of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Having been raised on the jubilant irreverence of the piedmont blues, Elizabeth found church tunes lacking in sparkle, and after a short period of half-hearted tries, she tucked her guitar away where it sat untouched for the next twenty-five years.
It is often the case that the defining moments of our lives arrive innocuously disguised in the ordinary. In Elizabeth Cotten’s case, it came disguised in big blue eyes, twin brown braids, and a quivering bottom lip. While working in Lansburgh’s Department store, Cotten bumped into a young, tearful, and very lost little girl, whose relieved mother offered Cotten a job in her home. Little could Cotten have known that she was entering the employ of the Seegers, a family on the forefront of the Folk Revival and hungry for authentic folk music, nor could the Seegers have known that Cotten was about as authentic as it got. The constant temptation of the family’s musical influence proved to be too much for Cotten’s commitment to tee-totaling secular music. The Seegers found her one afternoon, tucked away, plucking tunes from the tangle of memory and onto the strings of a family guitar.
And so, with the Seeger’s encouragement, Elizabeth Cotten began her public career at the age of sixty-eight. Mike Seeger set up a makeshift studio in the living room of Cotten’s home, where, surrounded by the hushed excitement of her grandchildren, she recalled and recorded the songs of her childhood.
Elizabeth began playing concerts at small venues, and before long, was starring alongside blues legends such as Muddy Waters, John Hurt, and John Lee Hooker. Her song “Freight Train” became one of the defining tunes of folk revival, and her signature style, aptly named “Cotten Picking,” became a standard of blues technique. Elizabeth Cotten’s name is legend in folk music, and yet her greatest contribution may be her story itself. Marked by the charm of a young prodigy, the tragedy of twenty-five years of silence, and the joy of the accident that led her back to her first love, Elizabeth Cotten’s story imbues both her music and legacy with the warmth, the sweetness, and the inimitably gentle-soft sadness of the blues.