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The Enduring Legacy of Elizabeth Cotten

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I only recently got interested in Folk music around 2019 with my brief Woody Guthrie obsession. While exploring the early folk/country music cannon, I made a very oblivious and ignorant mistake. The George Floyd/Briona Taylor protests in 2020 forced me to reexamine many facets of my life, my music library being one of them. I suddenly realized all the folk music I’d been listening to were white people, or even white people performing traditional black songs and getting worldwide attention for it (looking at you Les Paul and Mary Ford). After overcoming the immediate sense of embarrassment I did my research, and came across so many incredible musicians who had been buried under white performers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. This is when I introduced myself to Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly and of course Elizabeth Cotten.

Tragically, Cotten spent most of her life unrecognized for her talent. Through live recordings of her performances we are able to hear her talk about her life and journey with music, and how incredibly influential her early days were. She talked about teaching herself how to play her brother’s guitar and banjo starting at the age of 8 (and hiding from him when she would inevitably break one of his strings), how she named herself during her first day of school, getting her first job at age 11 to buy her first guitar and so many other stories. These snippets of her life helped her achieve the status of one of America’s greatest folk musicians. Her most popular song, Freight Train, was written when she was about 12 years, the time in her life when she wrote a lot of her future hits. When she married at the age of 15 she devoted her time to her family and her church, where convinced her to stop playing her “worldly music”.

Because she was self-taught, she was well-known for her unique way of playing. She held the guitar upside down and plucked the strings with both hands, playing melodies with treble strings and simple notes on the bass. This later became an established method of playing known as “Cotton Style”. It wasn't until the late 50’s when she had a chance encounter with composer Ruth Crawford Seeger and became a friend of the family. This family recognized her talent and encouraged her to begin performing. Mike Seeger, Ruth’s son and a folk musician in his own right, was the first to record Cotten’s music in 1958 when she was 62 years old. The Seegers were well connected with politicians of the day, and would schedule her first performances in the homes of senators and congressmen like JFK. Her career really took off during the early 60’s when she became one of the leading figures in the folk revival movement. She would continue to tour and perform until her death in 1987.

Her story shares so much wisdom. It is as testament to the fact you’re never too old to change your life or even to achieve success. It is proof great things can be accomplished, and dreams can come true. It shows doing things your own way doesn’t have to be wrong. It continues to inspire new generations of artists and musicians, and her legacy will live on through them.


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