As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 19 – Spring 2022
Legendary folk guitarist Elizabeth Cotten was called feisty by some. A description that seems out of character for the gentle folk singer born in 1895. But her courageous guitar playing and songwriting were quite spirited by 1800s standards. Her cool, laid-back persona belies the compelling content of songs like “Willie” and “When I’m Gone.”
Born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Cotten borrowed her brother’s guitars but only while he was away since she was not permitted to play them. As a small girl, she taught herself to play banjo and later guitar. Cotten was left-hand, so she adapted and taught herself how to play in a unique way. This meant picking up a right-handed guitar that was strung “upside down” — long before Jimi Hendrix would do the same on electric. Today options exist for left-handed players, but back then, a forward-thinking Cotten made do and created her own special style in the process. She sang in the church choir and at a mere twelve years old, wrote her now legendary song “Freight Train.” The stark, melodically chugging tune is a favorite among folk music lovers and beyond and displays Cotten’s unique fingerpicking technique and signature vocal style.
Cotten’s career in music included several recordings and national tours. She blended African American instrumental traditions with intense songwriting touching on folk and blues styles. In 1984 Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and also recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as a “living treasure.” And amazingly, at ninety years old, she received a GRAMMY Award in 1985.
Throughout her career, Cotten played early C.F. Martin guitars. With a distinctive approach, she developed an original style playing the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style became known as “Cotten picking.” Eventually, her music gained popularity, especially during the folk revival of the 1960s. Then the artist toured throughout North America, including the Smithsonian Festival, the Newport Folk Festival, the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
C.F. Martin created a special guitar honoring Cotten, which is on display in the company’s museum. The 00-18CTN Elizabeth Cotten limited edition guitar is in the tradition of the pre-war era 00-18 Martins. The commemorative 00-18CTN Elizabeth Cotten is a perfect tribute that combines several special details amplifying her legacy. A pearl freight train inlay sits at the octave fret, and Elizabeth Cotten’s signature is inlaid between the 19th and 20th frets. Crafted with premium tonewoods, the guitar also has a polished and beveled vintage tortoise-colored pickguard. The guitar transports back in time with a vintage toner on the top as well as a genuine mahogany low-profile neck and square, tapered headstock. Each guitar has a numbered interior label and is personally signed by Larry Ellis, Sr., Elizabeth Cotten’s grandson, and Martin Chairman and CEO, C.F. Martin IV.
A true artist and innovator, Cotten wrote from her heart and environment, and this special guitar embodies the spirit and raw talent of a legend.
Rightfully, Cotten is included in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America, a book by Brian Lanker in which she is represented alongside Marian Anderson, Oprah Winfrey, and Rosa Parks. The city of Syracuse, New York, where Cotten resided the last years of her life, honored her with a park called the Elizabeth Cotten Grove.
Artists from the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan to Taj Mahal and Peter, Paul, and Mary covered her tunes such as “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” “Shake Sugaree,” and “Freight Train.”
Like her song: “Till We Meet Again” — yes, indeed, Libba.