Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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.

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 played at clubs and festivals from New York to Hawaii. She was an active performer well into her 90s, often appearing with her singer/songwriter granddaughter, Johnine Rankin.

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

In concert, she complained she “can't play like [she] used to," and she warmed up with an old blues guitar progression. Between songs, she pulled the long fingers of one hand through the other, complaining of the cold. But she projected a warmth that drew little children to her and compeled an audience of strangers to sing aloud the songs she taught them.

"0l' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug, ol' Georgia bug said so," Cotton sang, watching the crowd. "Sing, son," she prodded as a little boy joined in.

She sang "Freight Train" with a little wide-eyed, red-haired girl she called 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 ignored the repeated requests for "Shake Sugaree."

In her later years, she left the blues to granddaughter, who sang 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 in her later years. "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 the 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 played left-handed, but with the guitar strung for a right-handed player, so in effect she played upside down. Her rhythmic "Cotton picking" guitar style 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 admitted. "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 moved to Syracuse, was named National Heritage Fellow along with 16 other traditional folk artists. 

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

Her body was cremated after she passed in 1987.

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