How Elizabeth Cotten's music fueled the folk revival
As a Black woman playing fingerstyle guitar, Yasmin Williams has been hailed as a "hero for a new generation." She says she often felt like an anomaly- until she discovered a YouTube video of Elizabeth Cotten.
"I knew about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other kind of more rock and roll or electric players and singers and I loved them too, but just seeing an acoustic guitarist was amazing." But when Williams tried to learn more about Cotten she discovered that most accounts of her life skipped over the hardships she overcame, focusing only on her late-career success.
Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, N.C. around 1893. Her father worked in the mines. Her mother cleaned houses. When Cotten's brother was off at work, Sis Nevills, as she was called then, snuck into his room and took his guitar off the wall. Since she was left-handed, she turned it so the bass strings were at the bottom, therefore "backwards." She used her thumb to play the melody and her fingers for the low notes.
When Cotten's brother discovered her playing, he tried to offer advice, "'You got it upside down, turn it around or change the strings." She tried but liked the sound better the other way, so she kept with it, practicing for hours on end. After the third grade, Cotten left school to work. Making 75 cents a month cleaning houses and cooking, she saved up to buy her guitar. Cotten picked up new songs after hearing them only once or twice, and wrote her songs, including "Freight Train."
Cotten was married in her mid-teens and had a daughter. A pastor discouraged her from playing "wordly" songs. But by the mid-1940s she had left the church and her marriage and she was living with family in Washington, D.C. when she applied for a job at a local department store, where she was hired to sell dolls. When a girl wandered away, Cotten saved the day by reuniting her with her mother. She didn't know it, but that woman was composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, wife of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, and mother to budding folk musicians Mike and Peggy, and stepson Pete- who was well on his way to stardom as a member of the Weavers.
blues/folklife festival in DC, on the National Mall.
I think Chatmon said he wrote 'Top O the World', - and never made a dime from it.
It was at Pete Seegers Clearwater Festival. They put her in flatbed and she circled the grounds doing Freight Train. Sweet Honey on the Rock was helping her out.
She performed before tens of thousands at Jubilee, the UNC spring music festival in 1969 or 1970. I think it was the same year as another local, James Taylor.