A self-taught left-handed guitarist, Cotten developed her own original style. Her approach involved using a right-handed guitar (usually in standard tuning), not re-strung for left-handed playing, essentially, holding a right-handed guitar upside down. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style has become known as “Cotten picking”.
Elizabeth Nevills was born in Carrboro, North Carolina, at the border of Chapel Hill, to a musical family. Her parents were George Nevills and Louise Price Nevills. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. At age seven, Cotten began to play her older brother’s banjo. By eight years old, she was playing songs. At 11, after scraping together some money as a domestic helper, she bought her own guitar. Although self-taught, she became very good at playing the instrument. By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, “Freight Train“, would go on to be one of her most recognized. Cotten wrote “Freight Train” when she saw a train pass by her house on Lloyd Street in Carrboro, North Carolina.
Around the age of 13, Cotten began working as a maid along with her mother. Soon after at age 15, she was married to Frank Cotten. The couple had a daughter named Lillie, and soon after young Elizabeth gave up guitar playing for family and church. Elizabeth, Frank and their daughter Lillie moved around eastern United States for a number of years between North Carolina, New York, and Washington, D.C., finally settling in the D.C. area. When Lillie married, Elizabeth divorced Frank and moved in with her daughter and her family.
Cotten had retired from the guitar for 25 years, except for occasional church performances. It wasn’t until she reached her 60s that she began recording and performing publicly. She was discovered by the folk-singing Seeger family while she was working for them as a housekeeper.
While working for a brief stint in a department store, Cotten helped a child wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Penny Seeger, and the mother was composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Soon after this, Elizabeth again began working as a maid, caring for Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger‘s children, Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny. While working with the Seegers (a voraciously musical family) she remembered her own guitar playing from 40 years prior and picked up the instrument again to relearn almost from scratch.
Later career and recordings
During the later half of the 1950s, Mike Seeger began making bedroom reel to reel recordings of Cotten’s songs in her house. The culmination of these recordings would later go on the album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, which was released on Folkways Records. Since its release, her songs, especially her signature track, “Freight Train”, written when she was 11, have been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Devendra Banhart, Laura Gibson, Laura Veirs, His Name Is Alive and Taj Mahal. Shortly afterwards, she began playing selected joint shows with Mike Seeger, the first of which was in 1960 at Swarthmore College. One of her songs, “Ain’t Got No Honey Baby Now”, was in fact recorded by Blind Boy Fuller under the title “Lost Lover Blues” in 1940.
Over the course of the early 1960s, Cotten went on to play more shows with big names in the burgeoning folk revival. Some of these included Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.
The newfound interest in her work inspired her to write more material to play and in 1967, she released a record created with her grandchildren which took its name from one of the songs she had written, Shake Sugaree.
Using profits from her touring and record releases, as well as from the many awards given to her for contribution to the folk arts, Elizabeth moved with her daughter and grandchildren from Washington and bought a house in Syracuse, New York. She continued touring and releasing records well into her 80s. In 1984 she won the Grammy Award for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording” for her album on Arhoolie Records, Elizabeth Cotten Live. When accepting the award in Los Angeles, her comment was “Thank you. I only wish I had my guitar so I could play a song for you all”. In 1989, Cotten was one of 75 influential African-American women chosen to be included in the photo documentary, I Dream a World.
Elizabeth Cotten died in Syracuse, New York, at the age of 92.
Elizabeth Cotten began writing music while toying around with her older brother’s banjo. She was left-handed so she played the banjo “backwards”. Later, when she transferred her songs to the guitar, a unique style was formed, since on the banjo the uppermost string is not a bass string, as on the guitar but a short high pitched string called a drone string. This required her to adopt a unique style for the guitar, which she first played with all finger down strokes like a banjo. Later this evolved into a unique style of finger picking, and her signature, alternating bass style is known as “Cotten Picking”.
 Liner notes
- Seeger, Mike. Liner Notes accompanying Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes, by Elizabeth Cotten. Washington, DC : Smithsonian Folkways, 1989.