A true American treasure, Elizabeth Cotten (1893–1987) played a key role in the late ’50s/early ’60s folk boom. Though she learned guitar and wrote her first songs when she was a young’un growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, she stopped playing for many years, as her life took her in non-musical directions. (A lefty, she played guitar strung for a righty; upside down to her.) It wasn’t until she became a maid in the household of musicologist Charles Seeger—father of folk icons Mike, Peggy, and their half-brother Pete (who did not live there)—that she started playing guitar again. Indeed, it was Mike Seeger (of New Lost City Ramblers fame) who made the first home reel-to-reel recordings of Cotten (then more than 60 years old); those became her influential debut album for the Folkways label, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar. The much-covered “Freight Train,” which “Libba” wrote when she was just 11, is probably her best-known composition.
In this video, we get a nice glimpse of her two-fingered “Cotten picking” style (which she says was informed by leaning banjo first) on a version of the Christian hymn “In the Sweet By-and-By,” written by Joseph P. Webster (music) and S. Fillmore Bennett (lyrics) in 1868. —Blair Jackson
And check out this cool AG lesson feature from 2017: