Last month, musician Elizabeth Cotten posthumously received the Early Influence Award from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation—an award that honors artists who have had a profound influence on the development of rock and roll. This is a very well-earned award that's long overdue. If you don't know Elizabeth Cotten's work, you definitely should. I first encountered her work in college in the last 1980s, via a song by fIREHOSE called "In memory of Elizabeth Cotten" on their if'n album (1987). The song was beautiful—a slow, moving number that's different from the rest of their work—and inspired me to investigate Cotten.
The Daily Tar Heel provides some history of the musician and discusses her vast impact on American folk music:
Glenn Hinson, an associate professor of anthropology and folklore at UNC, said Cotten's music inspired musicians during the folk music revival of the mid-twentieth century.
He also said her music was especially compelling to the white youth at that time, who began to express interest in the blues and other forms of Black music.
"They were entranced because, in this world that mostly presented elder Black male guitarists, there were very few Black women guitarists on the stage, and Ms. Cotten stepped right into that role and was quite celebrated for it," Hinson said.
Cotten was born in the early 1890s near Chapel Hill, in an area that would later be incorporated as Carrboro. From the age of 11 until her 60s, she worked as a domestic servant in working-class white households, Hinson noted.
While Cotten taught herself to play both the banjo and guitar early in her life, Variety explains that she didn't become a professional musician until very late in life:
While working in a department store in 1940s Washington D.C., Cotten discovered a crying, lost, little girl and returned her to her mother. The grateful mom: singer-songwriter Peggy Seeger, sister of legendary Mike Seeger, who promptly hired Cotten as a domestic for the family. When Mike Seeger discovered her long-dormant talent with a six-string, he recorded and released the 62-year-old's first record, "Elizabeth Cotten: Folk Songs and Instrumentals with Guitar."
Read more about Cotten's musical journey in this piece in Variety. And enjoy this video posted by Vintage Music Hub of a live performance of perhaps her most famous song, Freight Train, where she demonstrates her unique "Cotten style" guitar playing technique. The Daily Tar Heel explains:
Because she was left-handed, Cotten played the guitar upside down. She also adopted a style of music that was traditional to the Carrboro and Chapel Hill region at the time.
Cotten developed a unique guitar style that came to be known as "Cotten style." She picked the strings with her left hand, which was the opposite of the usual method. She also picked the bass strings with her fingers and the treble strings with her thumb.