Had it not been for a chance encounter, the acoustic guitar world might have never known one of its most significant figures. Elizabeth Cotten learned the instrument when she was growing up in the early 1900s in North Carolina, but gave it up for church and family not long after she was married at 17. Some 40 years later, when she was working in a Washington, D.C., department store, Cotten helped a lost child find her mother, who turned out to be the modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, spouse of fellow composer, musicologist, and folklorist Charles Seeger. The Seegers hired Cotten to work in their household, then discovered her musical gifts when she began playing one of their guitars—after not having picked up the instrument for decades.
Sometime in the early 1950s, the Seegers’ son Mike (whose stepbrother was Pete Seeger) began making home recordings of Cotten. He also produced her 1958 debut album, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, released when the musician was in her mid-60s, followed by Shake Sugaree (1967). The title track of the latter features Cotten’s great-granddaughter Brenda Evans, then only 12, on vocals. Evans, with the help of her brother and cousins, wrote the song’s nursery rhyme-like lyrics, as idiosyncratic as Cotten’s guitar work.
As she does on her signature song, “Freight Train” (transcribed in the July 2017 issue), Cotten plays “Shake Sugaree” on a guitar tuned down a whole step, using chord shapes in the key of C major that sound in Bb. The transcription in the July/August 2023 issue captures Cotten’s bright fingerpicking—an intro solo, followed by one full verse accompaniment—note for note. While the song is harmonically simple, not venturing from the I (C), IV (F), and V (G7) chords (sounding as Bb, Eb, and F7, respectively), there are lots of little details that add interest. Note, for instance, how Cotten varies the texture with a moving bass line on its own in the tenth bar, and with pinches between the bass and the open first string in measures 7, 12, and 31—concepts to keep in mind for creating dynamic accompaniments.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the July/August 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 52.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.