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Thu, 01.05.1893

Elizabeth Cotten, Master Guitarist born

Elizabeth Cotten

*Elizabeth Cotten’s birth in 1893 is marked on this date. She was a Black Folk Music guitarist.

From Chapel Hill, NC, after picking up the banjo at the age of eight, she soon moved on to her brother's guitar, laying it flat on her lap and developing her picking style and chording. By age 12, she worked as a domestic and gave birth to her first child three years later.   As a young mother joining the church, she gave up the guitar, playing rarely over the next 25 years. In the early 1940s, Cotten had moved to Washington, D.C., where (as a domestic) she began working for the legendary Charles Seeger family and caring for children Pete, Peggy, and Mike.

When the Seegers heard Cotten's guitar skills a decade later, they recorded her for Folkways, and in 1957 she issued her debut LP, Folksongs and Instrumentals. The track "Freight Train," written when she was 12, became a Top Five hit in England and ensured her a handful of concert performances. This motivated her to write new material, which appeared on her second album, Shake Sugaree. As Cotten became comfortable performing, her presentation evolved to add telling stories about her life and leading her audiences in singing her songs. She recalled more songs from her childhood and learned new material.

Cotten did not retire from domestic work until 1970 and did not tour actively until the end of that decade. She won a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award as well as a Grammy; both earned during the final years of her life. She was one of the most influential guitarists to surface during the roots music revival era, her wonderfully expressive and dexterous finger-picking style a major inspiration to the generations of players who followed in her wake.  Elizabeth Cotten died in Syracuse, New York, on June 29, 1987.

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