The month of February is Black History month, and to celebrate it here at WUMB we are highlighting artists who have shaped the history of music over time. Today we highlight folk and blues songwriter, musician and singer, Elizabeth Cotten.
Elizabeth Cotten was born Elizabeth Nevills, the youngest of five children, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1893. She started her musical career by playing her brother’s banjo, then saving her money to buy a guitar at the age of 11. Naturally left-handed, Cotten taught herself to play guitar using a right-handed guitar and holding it upside down. She then played the melody with her thumb and the bass line with her fingers, inventing a style now known as “Cotten Picking”. She married Frank Cotten at the age of seventeen, gave birth to their child and subsequently retired from playing music for the next twenty-five years.
While working in a department store Cotten met composer Ruth Seeger of the musical Seeger family and went to work as the caretaker for the Seeger children and a maid for the family. It was due to the influence of the Seegers that she rediscovered her love of the guitar. Mike Seeger recorded Cotten in the late 1950’s, creating the foundation for her album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar.
She started her touring career playing with Mike Seeger and then went on to play with the likes of Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, and John Lee Hooker, as well as performing at the Newport Folk Festival. She won the 1984 Grammy Award for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording” for her album Elizabeth Cotten Live and in 1989 was included in the photo documentary I Dream A World, depicting the 75 most influential African American Women . Her songs have been covered by artists including but not limited to Taj Mahal, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Doc Watson, Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.