I have loved Elizabeth Cotten from the first time I heard her play Babe, It Ain’t No Lie on a scratchy vinyl album. It is the only proper introduction to her genius. “Libba” Cotten played the acoustic guitar and banjo sounding like the grandma version of Jimi Hendrix. She was not merely skillful, she wrote fantastic songs, and was lyrically gifted. Elizabeth Cotten was one of those women who excelled at what she did, and was not nearly rewarded or recognized enough for it.
Have you ever seen The Grateful Dead do Shake Sugaree? That was Cotten’s song. How often is it labelled as by The Grateful Dead, a Jerry Garcia creation? All the damn time. How about Freight Train, an iconic song ostensibly about how the young Ms. Cotten lay in bed listening to the sound of the trains running down the track. I can’t hear it without thinking, how Elizabeth Cotten, born in 1893, only one generation removed from slavery, with both black and native heritage, was so close to the days of the Underground Railroad. Elizabeth sings, “Freight train, freight train, run so fast/Freight train, freight train, run so fast/Please don’t tell what train I’m on/They won’t know what route I’m going.” Every time I hear her sing those words my stomach lurches, it doesn’t take much empathy to realize how close such a fate was for the wonderful Ms. Cotten. She was only 12 when she wrote Freight Train, but showed such maturity of sound and song. In a 1966 interview with Charles Seeger, Elizabeth noted:
“My father’s people was Indians. My father’s mother was a slave. My mother’s people were not slaves.”
For this song to have been covered so many times, by such white artists, with such little recognition for Ms Cotten or her suffering is unconscionable. Libby Cotten’s songs are relics of her immense talent, but also of her suffering, and (white, male) bands like the Dead had no right to cover them, especially when they gave her so little recognition. I wonder if she ever got a cent out of them? Would anyone be surprised if the horrendous answer to that was no?
Elizabeth Cotten should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame while she was still alive to take the accolade, and accept the recognition. It is too little, far too late. Her iconic style, playing lefthanded, but with a right handed guitar simply turned upside down, so her low E string was on the bottom, and the high E on top leant her exquisitely neat fingerpicking style a different timbre. The low E string lightly touched with her little finger, and the melody ringing out clear as a bell. Listening to her perform the complicated Vestapol, or even her hit song that she wrote when she was just a young girl, Freight Train, it becomes immediately clear that her skill and talent as a guitarist was immense. She is so much better than Garcia of the Dead, who performed her songs over and over again, that I always feel slightly embarrassed for Jerry. Her style, much imitated, is almost impossible to replicate because of her unique way of playing. Nevertheless, many folk luminaries covered her music. Elizabeth’s songs have notably been performed by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Taj Mahal, and Peter, Paul and Mary and Rhiannon Giddens.
Elizabeth Cotten was discovered by the Seeger family after they employed her to work in the house, after Elizabeth saved their little girl, Peggy, who got lost and Ms. Cotten found her family and returned the child to them. The folk-royalty Seeger’s soon discovered she could play guitar. She played right up until her death at the age of 92.
Cotten’s music is American heritage. It is the sound of triumph over adversity. It is the sound of survival against systemic racism and slavery. It is the sound of female genius. It is uplifting and saddening, emotive and joyful. By failing to honor Cotten up to this point, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was failing to honor the work that an unfair society also failed to pay for, and if that doesn’t make you angry, I don’t know what will.
Moving onto the music, Elizabeth Cotten writes perfect vignettes of a space and time in America that was over before I was born. Her granddaughter sings on Shake Sugaree, a song of survival and longing and need, where everything ‘even the old cow’ is pawned in order to get enough money to survive, and reminiscing is limited to ‘didn’t we shake sugaree?’ Stoic and scrabbling for survival, but head held high and holding onto for dear life to survival, makes for a sweet but disturbing song. Vestopol is pure America on 6 strings. The beat of the railway runs through it, as the mountains and the prairie pass by the windows. There is nothing more of this land, than Libby Cotten’s ragtime style parlor guitar picking.
In the crack of Libby’s voice is all the struggle and longing of a woman who is surprised to finally be listened to, after having survived so much hard work, for such little recompense. She told Seeger in ’66 that:
“…when I learned one little tune, I’d be so proud of that, that I’d want to learn another. Then I’d just keep sitting up trying. I tried hard to play, I’m telling you. I worked for what I’ve got. I really did work for it.”
I am sure Ms. Cotten did work very hard for her skill, but she possessed a talent that can’t be taught, self or otherwise. Echoes of her distant past and her life resonate in her words and music, America pours out of her fingers and onto the fretboard. She speaks her Truth so powerfully and so beautifully, she captivated audiences and still does, long after her passing.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is finally honoring one of the giants of Americana, and the font of that singer songwriter, folk singing, personal chronicling poet with a guitar. She is a vital piece of the puzzle of American culture, and deserves the spotlight she somewhat missed out on in life.
Congratulations, Elizabeth Cotten: poet, guitarist, matriarch, folk legend, polite rebel who picked up her guitar again after being forbidden to by the Church, and inspiration for all those who picked up a guitar after you and sang about life as they saw it. “Babe, it ain’t no lie,” you are a superstar.