Elizabeth Cotten

Noted folk singer Elizabeth Cotton
Still Going Strong at age 92
By Jim Reilly - 1985

When Elizabeth Cotton was a little girl growing up outside Chapel Hill, N.C., she used to dream about playing a guitar and having crowds of people join her in song.

Now, at 92, she has lived that dream many times.

Best known as the songwriter of "Freight Train," "Shake Sugaree," "Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie," and other classic country blues, she has played at clubs and festivals from New York to Hawaii. She's still an active performer, often appearing with her singer/songwriter granddaughter, Johnine Rankin.

Cotton's wit and storytelling skills remain sharp, though her hearing has faded and her voice has grown a bit thin.

In concert, she complains she “can't play like [she] used to," and warms up with an old blues guitar progression. Between songs, she pulls the long fingers of one hand through the other, complaining of the cold. But she projects a warmth that draws little children to her and compels an audience of strangers to sing aloud the songs she teaches them.

"0l' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug said so," Cotton sings, watching the crowd. "Sing, son," she prods as the little boy joins in.

She sings "Freight Train" with a little wide-eyed, red-haired girl she calls up out of the audience, then "I'm on My Way to the Promised Land," "Do Lord Remember Me," and "Tell It on the Mountain High."

She ignores the repeated requests for "Shake Sugaree."

These days, she leaves the blues to granddaughter Johnine, who sings her own songs, her grandmother's songs, and traditional folk and gospel songs in a rich, ringing voice.

"I don't sing the blues no more unless I have to," Cotton said afterward.

"When I joined a church in Chapel Hill, the deacon said I couldn't play those worldly songs and be a member of the Baptist Church ... so now I play church songs, and it's done me a world of good."

By her own account, Cotton had it hard much of her life. As youngest child in a family of five, she worked as a domestic for 75 cents a month. She bought her first guitar for $3.75 at age 9, and wrote "Freight Train" two years later. Her parents, two of her brothers, and her sister died when she was young.

She learned to play the guitar by picking out a tune on one string and then adding to the skill. She plays left-handed, but with the guitar strung for a right-handed player, so in effect she is playing upside down. Her rhythmic "Cotton picking" guitar style has influenced many other blues and acoustic guitar players. She learned to play the banjo.by listening to her older brother and sneaking practice time on his banjo when he was at work.

"He didn't have to show me nothin' 'cause I heard it day and night,” she said. "I was always breakin' the strings. I'd play it till the string said pwang, then I'd hang it hack up on the nail and hide under the bed."

Morristown Daily Record, June 30, 1987
After a move to Washington, she went to work for the musical Seeger family. She had been working in a department store when she met Ruth Crawford Seeger, and left to help with housework and care for the young Pete and brother Mike (both became well-known folk singers). She also helped raise her own five grandchildren.

It was with the Seegers in the early 1960s that Cotton picked up her guitar and began performing again, eventually joining the Seegers in concert.

Early in 1984, Cotton, who now lives in Syracuse, was named National Heritage Fellow along with 16 other traditional folk artists. 

She says her favorite song is On My Way to the Promised Land," an old spiritual, “cause I'm on my way.” She ends her concerts with “God Be' With You Till We Meet Again.”

Her body was cremated after she passed in 1987.

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