August 14

Remembering a Legendary Musician: Cotten Picking Guitar Player Miss Elizabeth Cotten


 “I want to tell them about my music. Tell them that I’m a good woman and tell them that’s where they will find me…right up the ladder (in heaven.)”-  Elizabeth Cotten

A humble maid who’s God-given talents and skills promoted her into our now, revered Miss Elizabeth Cotten.

So attention y’all guitar enthusiasts especially you lefties! Can you handle this? Ms. Cotten’s style of playing the guitar is upside-down because she’s left-handed. Yeah, but still, it’s mind-blowing!

She was a self-taught musician, and thanks to the Seeger family who she worked for and have happened to be musicians as well, her talents were finally recognized. As a nanny to the Seeger kids, she would play them guitar as a form of entertainment. Little did she know that it was her open door to being discovered.

Due to her unique guitar playing, the technique was attributed to her by calling it “Cotten Picking.”

[Cotten Picking]
Elizabeth Cotten plays in basically five styles; first being the ragtime or two finger style for which she is best known. She plays the 3 bass strings with her first finger and the three treble melody strings with her thumb, picking one string at time, alternating between treble and bass (although in her church songs she often plays treble and bass simulation). Her unique sound quality comes in part from the reversal of thumb and finger roles.

Mike Seeger & Alice Gerrard
(Linernotes of Elizabeth Cotten Volume 3: When I’m Gone)

She usually performed at various folk festivals like 1961 University of Chicago Folk Festival, 1963 Philadelphia Folk Festival, 1964 UCLA Folk Festival, 1964 Newport Folk Festival and 1968-1971 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. For the rest of the ‘70s, she was basically on tours and in the early ‘80s, she received multiple awards for her valuable contribution in American folk music.

Her success is a great example of modest and humble beginnings, but a life and a passion fulfilled in the end. Cheers to this great woman!

By the way, ever heard of the song”Freight Train?” That’s Ms. Cotten’s original composition. Enjoy!


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