As a black woman playing fingerstyle guitar, Yasmine Williams was hailed as a “heroes for a new generation.” She says she often felt like an anomaly – until she discovered a YouTube video of Elizabeth Cotten.
“I was aware Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other more rock and roll or electric types of players and singers and I liked them too, but just seeing an acoustic guitar player was amazing.” But when Williams tried to find out more about Cotten, she discovered that most stories of her life skip over the hardships she overcame, focusing solely on her late-career success.
Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina around 1893. Her father worked in the mines. His mother cleaned the houses. When Cotten’s brother was at work, Sis Nevills, as she was known then, snuck into his room and removed his guitar from the wall. As she was left-handed, she turned it so that the bass strings were at the bottom, so “upside down”. 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 give advice, “‘You put it upside down, flip it over or change the strings.” She tried but preferred the sound the other way around, so she kept going, practicing for hours. After third grade, Cotten left school to work. Earning 75 cents a month cleaning houses and cooking, she saved to buy her guitar. Cotten chose new songs after only hearing them once or twice, and wrote his songs, including “Freight Train”.
Cotten married in her mid-teens and had a daughter. A pastor discouraged her from playing “worldly” songs. But by the mid-1940s, she had left the church and her marriage and was living with her 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 off, 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 of budding folk musicians Mike and Peggy, and stepson Pete, who was well on his way to fame in as a member of the Weavers. .
The Seegers hired Cotten, whom they called “Libba”, to cook, clean and look after the children. They were surprised to discover that she was also a musician, says Peggy Seeger. “When I was about 15, I walked into the kitchen and saw her playing the guitar that was hanging on the wall. And she was playing ‘Freight Train’. Then she started trotting songs. She knew lots of songs. We would have been happy to cook and clean if she had just played!”
In 1956, 21-year-old Peggy took the “Freight Train” from Cotten to England. “Skiffle was kind of at his peak,” Seeger recalled. “I came in March 1956, and I was the flavor of the month because I was female, I was American, I was young, I played guitar and banjo, and I was footless and without fantasy. So, I just sang everywhere anybody asked me to sing and I even sang in places where they didn’t ask me to sing.”
“Freight Train,” which Seeger also recorded, sounded traditional, even timeless. She says it was picked up very quickly by other artists. “I taught it to Nancy Whiskey and Charles McDevitt, and when I went to China in 1957, they were playing it in cafes.”
There “folk process“, a term coined by Charles Seeger, argues that performers can add something new to old songs (changed lyrics, different arrangements) that transforms them into distinct compositions. A common practice among musicians of the time, the band Chas McDevitt released his version of “Freight Train” in 1957, which they copyrighted as “Fred James and Paul Williams”, pseudonyms of McDevitt and his manager, Bill Varley.
legal theorist Kevin J. Greene says that copyright law often disadvantaged black artists whose music was the basis of the folk revival. “Often these artists, who weren’t well educated, didn’t have enough resources, didn’t know how to navigate the copyright system, didn’t realize that if they performed their work publicly, anyone could fix these lyrics and claim copyright.”
The song reached number five on the UK charts, then rusty draper took her to the Top 10 in the United States where promotional material described the song as “a new hit tailor-made for himWhen she learned of the infringement, Cotten assigned the rights to a music publisher who took legal action.
According to his family, an out-of-court settlement gave Cotten only a third of the songwriting credit to share with McDevitt and Varley. Although the royalty terms were never made public, at the time it was customary for music publishers to take a 50% share, likely leaving Cotten with only a fraction of the song’s true value. Meanwhile, other artists continued to release “Freight Train”, including Peter, Paul and Mary, who redirected the song to New York in 1963. With a lyrical shout out to Bleecker Street, they attributed the song to Paul Stookey, Mary Travers, Elena Mezzetti and producer Milton Okun.
Mike Seeger started coming to Cotten to soundtrack performing “Freight Train” and other songs. He produced his first album Negro folk songs and other tunes (later renamed Folk songs with instrumentals and guitar) for release on the Folkways label in 1958. However, efforts to reclaim “Freight Train” were foiled by the group’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Chas McDevitt. The song became such a hit that McDevitt even opened a cafe in Soho called Freight Train.
Cotten and Mike Seeger maintained a close lifelong friendship, and she continued to record and tour with him over the years, and appear at high profile events such as the Newport Folk Festival. When she wasn’t cleaning houses or performing, Cotten shared a modest bedroom with her great-grandchildren, says Brenda Evans.
“Every night she played us and one of those nights she liked the little tune she was playing and grandma said to us, ‘Well kids, can you all find words for this song? So we all started participating, and that’s how ‘Shake Sugaree’ was born.”
Evans, 12, also sang on the recording, which was copyrighted and released in 1966. Fred Neil nevertheless claimed a co-credit for its renowned arrangement, and in 1969 the renowned Pat Boone version identifies Neil as the sole songwriter.
Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Joan Baez were among the artists who performed Cotten’s songs live, but they did not always advertise them as covers.
Culture critical Daphne A. Brooks says that generations of black female musicians have been robbed of the limelight and the world has been robbed of their art. Cotten didn’t quit housework until she was nearly 80, around the same time she received the 1972 Burl Ives Award for her contributions to folk music. It was only in 1984 that Cotten was recognized as a National Heritage Scholar by the National Endowment for the Arts. The next year, she won her first and only Grammyfor Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.
Since her death in 1987, Cotten has been recognized by North Carolina and New York, where she spent her last years. This year the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducts Cotten as an “early influence”. Like other black guitarists, like Etta Baker, Algia Mae Hintonand Memphis-Minnie, its influence has spanned generations, permeating all musical genres. “It’s in the ground of our soundscape,” says Brooks.
“The brilliance of Elizabeth Cotten’s music is world music from the life of a black girl, a black girl prodigy who wrote songs, who composed music and innovated her own unique style of playing “, adds Brooks, noting that “it is a specific manifestation of her Jim Crow-era North Carolina Black Girls Desire, Hope, Dream and Struggle.”
Singer-songwriter Laura Veirswho published a children’s book, Libbain 2018 credits the Seegers with exposing Cotten’s music to the world, but says “it was his determination that gave the world its voice”. Looking back, Peggy Seeger confirms: “She was her music. When she started playing, she wasn’t the ‘help'”.