Around Christmas time in the early 1940s, a woman was shopping at a department store in Washington, D.C. with her young daughter. The daughter wandered away from her mother and a brief search was launched. A seasonal employee in her mid-forties found the crying child and promptly returned her to her mother. The mother was modernist composer and American folk music specialist, Ruth Crawford Seeger (mother to Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny; wife to ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger; and stepmother to iconic figure of the mid-20th century American folk music revival and member of The Weavers, Pete Seeger). The department store employee was none other than Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten. Ruth was taken with Elizabeth immediately and offered her domestic work as a housekeeper and cook for the Seeger family (Williamson, 2008).
Elizabeth Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in early January of 1893, or possibly1895 (no one truly knows). She gave herself the name “Elizabeth” on the first day of school as up until then her parents George Nevilles (a miner and mill worker) and Louisa Price Nevilles (a midwife, cook, and launderer) had not given her a formal name and referred to her alternately as “Babe,” “Sis,” or sometimes “Short.” The teacher asked if “Babe” had a name and she quickly answered: “Yes, Elizabeth.” Later in life, Elizabeth Cotten was quoted as saying, “I don’t know if I’d ever heard the name, but I had to say something!” (Meggs, 2002).
As a child, Elizabeth taught herself to play the banjo and guitar on her brother’s instruments, and as her and her siblings worked and played, she would continually make up songs (one of these being the signature folk song “Freight Train,” which she composed at the age of 11). It was at this time, being left-handed, that Elizabeth developed her idiosyncratic, upside-down, two-finger playing style—Cotten Picking:
The first thing I’d do, I laid the guitar flat in my lap and worked my left hand till I could play the strings backwards and forwards. And then after I got so I could do that, then I started to chord it and get the sound of a song that I know. And if it weren’t but one string I’d get that. Then finally I’d add another string to that, and keep on till I could work my fingers pretty good. And that’s how I started playing with two fingers. And after I started playing with two fingers for a while, I started using three. I was just trying to see what I could do. I never had any lessons, nobody to teach me anything. I just picked it up (Meggs, 2002).
At a young age Elizabeth Cotten left school to work, and at the age of fifteen was married and had a daughter, Lillie. From then on she only played the guitar occasionally. In fact, it wasn’t until after she had been working in the Seeger’s musical household for a few years that she began to play again, even though she was now well into her fifties. The Seeger children were developing as musicians themselves and encouraged Cotten to play them her repertoire of songs.
In 1957, while touring Europe, Peggy Seeger performed Cotten’s “Freight Train” and the song soon became a popular standard of the great folk revival. Cotten’s own performance and recording career began that year as well with Mike Seeger recording her singing at her home in Washington, D.C. Her first album, Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar, was comprised of these recordings and initiated her professional relationship with the Smithsonian’s Folkways Record label. This led to numerous bookings, and Elizabeth Cotten continued to perform live until just weeks prior to her death at the age of 92 in Syracuse, New York on June 29, 1987. Three years earlier, in 1984, “Libba” (as Penny Seeger had nicknamed her as a child) won the Grammy Award for “Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording” for her album on Arhoolie Records, Elizabeth Cotten Live.
The first song for today is taken from Cotten’s second album for Folkways Records, 1967’s Shake Sugaree. Featuring Cotten’s original melody on guitar, and vocals handled by her twelve year-old granddaughter, Brenda Evans—the odd, nursery-rhyme-like title track’s lyrics were created by Brenda herself, along with her brother Johnny and her two cousins Sue and Wendy. Within the liner notes Cotten states that “the first verse, my eldest great grandson, he made that himself, and from that each child would say a word and add to it. To tell the truth, I don’t know what got it started, but it must have been something said or something done.”
I’ve got a secret
I ain’t gonna tell
I’m goin’ to heaven in a brown pea shell
Oh, Lordy me, didn’t we shake sugaree
Everything I have is down in pawn
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Like it? Buy it.
And here’s Devendra Banhart performing “Shake Sugaree” as a creepy parlor song, in a video recorded early in his career at The Knitting Factory (the video itself was uploaded in 2006, but by his bald, baby face I place it as no later than 2004).
Up next is one of my favorite Cotten numbers, off the same album: I’m Going Away
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To wrap it all up, off Elizabeth Cotten’s first album back in 1958: Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie
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Like it? Buy it.
As a little added bonus, here’s Bob Dylan’s live rendition of the same tune, used as the opening number for his concert of March 15, 2000, held at the Civic Auditorium, in Santa Cruz, California.
I guess that Elizabeth Cotten is proof that you never really know which way life is going to go.
Banhart, D. (n.d.) (Creator). jamespcollier (Poster) (2006, July 25). Devendra Banhart – Shake Sugaree [Video] Retrieved March 3, 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nA2PF7You9w
Cotten, E. (1967). I’m Going Away [recorded by Elizabeth Cotten] On Shake Sugaree [CD] Folkways Records. (1967).
Cotten, E. (1958). Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie [recorded by Elizabeth Cotten] On Folksongs
And Instrumentals With Guitar [CD] Folkways Records. (1958).
Cotten, E. (1958). Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie [recorded by Bob Dylan] live March 15, 2000,
Civic Auditorium, Santa Cruz, California [CD] Bootleg.
Cotten, E. (1967) Shake Sugaree [recorded by Elizabeth Cotten] On Shake Sugaree [CD] Folkways Records. (1967).
Meggs, L. (2002). Cotten, Elizabeth (c. 1893–1987). Commire, A. (Ed.). Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. 148-152 Detroit: Yorkin Publications. Retrieved March 3, 2012 from Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Williamson, N. (2008). The Rough Guide To The Best Music You’ve Never Heard. New York: Penguin.