Elizabeth Cotten is one of those near-mystical musical figures that embalm Americana with the miasma of mystery. She might not be known to many, but those who have crossed her wavering path find her very hard to forget. Born in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1893, the wisdom of every one of her 94 years was drenched into her songs like a wrung-out sponge before she passed away in 1987, creating an aura to her music that still beguiles to this day.
In the same style as Jimi Hendrix, Cotten was a left-handed guitarist who simply flipped a right-handed instrument upside down. However, being more a folk player than Hendrix’s psychedelic style meant that the results were worlds apart. Uniquely, Cotten would play the bass line with her fingers and work the melody with her thumb. This inimitable style is known as ‘Cotten Picking’ and it imbued her music with the essential quality of individualism to match her identity as a benevolent musical enigma.
Known to many as ‘Libba’, she shared her musical talents with as many people as she could. In fact, she seems to have taught half of the guitar teachers in North America ensuring that her timeless take on playing is woven in the tapestry of blues and folks for good. However, such was her singular way of playing it is almost impossible to mimic tracks as she played them, making her perhaps one of the most unconventional tutors of all time. None of that mattered, however, because imparting knowledge is one element of teaching but doling out inspiration is quite another.
As Bob Dylan, a contemporary inspired by her timeless ways, once said: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?” And a second quote from the famed troubadour even seems to delineate the same message as Cotten’s songs: “You should always take the best from the past, leave the worst back there and go forward into the future.”
When it comes to ‘Freight Train’, and this recording, in particular, Cotten puts the listener upon some sun-baked porch in the past with effortless ease. The recording seems to creak with natural age and coaxes you into thinking that there is a kindly little old lady somewhere in your vicinity heartily croaking out a tune from the sweet by-and-by. It might not be note-perfect and time may have taken its toll on the dexterity of her ‘Cotten Picking’ brilliance, but that gives her performance the humanised air that makes it soar.
The internet might seem like a harsh and hostile place sometimes, but it is hidden gems of history like this one that make it all worthwhile. Although it might only be a sub-three-minute recording, there is something so touching and timeless about it that it seems well worth preserving, and I certainly hope that it can bring a bit of solace to a rainy day. So, here’s to Elizabeth Cotten perhaps the only Grammy winner not to know what the hell one of them was.
See the clip, below.