A few words about a legendary guitar player: Elizabeth Cotten

I’m playing a lot more guitar right now than I have in the last 10-15 years. I feel like a teenager again, sitting down and practicing certain exercises again and again to a metronome before I allow myself to move on to the next thing. In other words … hey, I’m not being lazy for a change!

This renewed interest was sparked by my decision to finally learn how to properly fingerpick an acoustic guitar, playing melodies with my first three fingers and an alternating bassline with my thumb. It’s a style I’ve long associated with legends such as Mississippi John Hurt and John Fahey—but there’s another guitarist who can do it just as well: the late, great Elizabeth Cotten. 

Elizabeth was born in 1893 and lived to be 94 years old. She learned how to play guitar at a young age—she was left-handed, but played a right-handed guitar strung for a right-handed player—but then stopped playing for decades.

Fortunately, much like Mississippi John Hurt, Cotten’s music was rediscovered in her later years. While in her 60s, when she was working as a housekeeper for the famous Seeger family, Cotten started to play regularly again and started to gain a lot of notoriety. She put out a few albums then, and each one is beautiful from beginning to end—not one second of filler to be found! She even went on to win a Grammy in 1984.

Cotten was a huge influence on a whole generation of folk and blues musicians. The Grateful Dead, especially Jerry Garcia, were big fans, and the Dead would actually play her songs live from time to time. For example, here’s their take on Cotten’s “Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie”:

If I had to pick just a few favorites from Cotten, I’d go with “Shake Sugaree,” which features her daughter on vocals, and “I’m Going Away.” “Freight Train,” which she originally wrote as a young girl, is another absolute classic.

No matter how much I practice, I’ll obviously never be half as good as Elizabeth Cotten. But she’s one of the musicians who inspired me to pick the guitar up again. For that, and for everything else she did in her long life, I’m very thankful.

Check out some more Cotten below, thanks to the almighty Spotify machine:

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