No pressure, but you need to know about Elizabeth Cotten

Sunday, March 18, 2018 - 4:09pm

Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Cotten Buy this photo
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The old woman in the recording tells you she is from Chapel Hill, N.C. In the background, she plucks and strums at a guitar: You can picture her weathered fingers moving expertly over the strings as she smiles into the microphone, addressing the crowd. She was 85 years old, then living in Washington, D.C..

“I guess I’ll live there the rest of my life,” she says, “‘cause all my people are there — my daughter, her children, all her granddaughters. My grands and greats and greats, all there.”

The recording is a live version of “Freight Train,” from the album Live!, released in 1998. The woman is Elizabeth Cotten, who was born in 1893 and wrote the song when she was only 11 or 12-years-old. She taught herself to play the banjo and the guitar as a child, borrowing her brother’s instruments against his wishes and reversing them so that she could play them left-handed. At the age of 11, she saved up enough money doing domestic work — $3.75 — to buy her own guitar. She developed her own unique method of alternating the bass and the melody while she was playing, which came to be known as “Cotten style,” and was already a proficient guitar player and songwriter by her early teens.

It is hard for me to try to tell you about Elizabeth Cotten; it is impossible, I think, for anybody to adequately define or describe her, other than herself. She knew what she wanted and who she was, lived life on her own terms. She shares a prime example of this with us on another track from the same live album, “Elizabeth Story, et al., Honeybabe, Your Papa Cares For You.”

In the story, she explains, “When I was born in the world, they didn’t name me.” Her mother and father couldn’t agree on a name, so for the first few years of her life, she was known only as “Babe,” “Sis” and “Little Sis” by the people around her, up until her first day of school.

“When (the teacher) was calling the roll, she says, ‘Little Sis Nevills.’ She said, ‘Do you have a name?’” says Cotten in the recording. “I says, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘Elizabeth.’ So I named myself.”

Cotten began working as a maid alongside her mother when she was 13 and married her husband at 15. She had one daughter and spent many years working and moving around, having given up the guitar in favor of church and family obligations. Around 40 years later, she was working in a department store one day when she helped a lost child find her mother. The child was Peggy Seeger, the mother Ruth Crawford Seeger. The Seeger family hired Cotten as a maid, which eventually prompted Cotten to remember her own musical past and to re-teach herself the guitar almost completely. The Seegers ultimately ended up helping Cotten record some of her early music; soon, she was performing publicly. She attracted fans during the folk revival of the early 1960s, even performing at the legendary Newport Folk Festival.

Because Cotten spent so much of her life unrecognized as a musician, she is already well into her 60s in most of the recordings of her that exist. This makes for a strange and quietly profound experience: When you listen to some of Elizabeth Cotten’s songs, you’re listening to songs that she wrote as a very young girl and sang for others only years later, as an older woman. The words are forward-looking, but also sometimes a little death-preoccupied, as folk songs often are. They’re songs that make you think about the beginning of your life and also the end of it, and how far you’ve come in between.

Perhaps nowhere is this conveyed more absolutely than in “Freight Train.” There are other, more popular recordings of the song — as well as covers of it by more popular artists — but Cotten’s Live! version is my favorite. You can hear her at age 85, after all those years of working and growing and being herself, all those experiences: The time she named herself Elizabeth, the time a taxi driver told her a joke while they were passing by a cemetery, the daughter she had and all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who came after. And she’s singing “Freight Train,” a song she wrote as a young child, on the other side of all of those years.

It’s a simple song, really — a song about the train tracks that ran by her childhood home. After she runs through the opening chord progression, she asks the audience, “Y’all ever heard that before?” and they all laugh. Yes, they have. You can hear them singing the words along with her — open, honest words about the love that you can have for a little thing when that thing is in a place that you love.

They sing, “When I die, Lord, bury me deep / Way down on old Chestnut Street / So I can hear old Number Nine / As she comes rolling by.” The sound of a roomful of people singing about a sentiment ordinarily so incommunicable, together, fro memory, is the kind of thing that stays with a person. It’s a feeling like coming full circle, transcendent and communal in a way that folk music often reaches for, but rarely ever achieves so naturally.

It doesn’t feel right to sum up a reflection on Elizabeth Cotten with words of my own. She was, after all, a woman who made her own words, her own life, her own name. Her personality was aptly described by Folkways as “quietly commanding,” and, fittingly, her music is emotional, natural, quiet and strong. The fact that we have her story and her music still available to us is a treasure too often overlooked. What old woman becomes a powerful presence in the world of folk music well into her 60s? What little girl teaches herself how to play the guitar like an expert, upside-down and left-handed? What little girl names herself?

In the live recording of “Washington Blues,” Cotten recounts the early process of learning how to play the guitar and trying to get her brother to help her. She had to figure out how to play the instrument in a way that made sense for her, turning it upside-down and playing using her own method. Her brother told her to try changing the strings, but it ended up making the guitar sound even worse than it had before.

“So no one help me,” she says, and the audience laughs and claps. “Everything I play for y’all tonight, I give myself credit, ‘cause nobody need help me.”