Cotten-Picking, Rootin’ Tootin’, Sassafrassing…Guitar Hero

Elizabeth Cotten had an unlikely musical career. As a left-handed young girl she taught herself to play her brother’s banjo. Then she bought a guitar from Sears Roebuck at 11 and proceeded to play it Jimi Hendrix-style, upside-down. After getting married at 17 she basically gave up playing guitar for 25 years, except for occasional church performances. Quite at random, she was hired as a maid by part of the Seeger family—working for Pete Seeger’s dad and the children of his second wife. She picked up the guitar again, and blew everybody’s mind. Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother) started recording her and the sessions were made into an album from Folkways Records—Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar. Her signature tune “Freight Train” became hugely popular among the folk musicians of the revival of the late 50s/early 60s, being covered by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan among many others.

She started to tour and perform with big names, released another influential record in 1967, Shake Sugaree, and kept touring and playing till the end of her life (January 5, 1895 – June 29, 1987). Her unusual picking style was greatly admired, because it’s totally awesome! People have worked out alternate ways to play the songs that don’t involve playing the guitar upside down and backwards. (John spent two weeks learning “Freight Train” when we were on Martha’s Vineyard last year, causing our children to, in extremis, institute a strict “no Freight Train” policy. Happily, though, now it reminds us of my aunt’s house and all being together with my siblings and cousins, and beach plums, and the creek with its perfect flat wet stones, and the cold Atlantic, so grey.) Her music is distinctive because of the bass lines—the strings sounding the lowest notes were at the bottom of the guitar and so she picks out distinctive tunes on them. The highest string being on top, she sometimes treats the guitar like a banjo—since that’s where the high-pitched drone string is. I just learned reading the wikipedia article that she wrote “Freight Train” at 11!

Her voice is wonderful, but many of her best songs are instrumental only:

I’m having trouble choosing here, “In The Sweet By and By” is beautiful…some songs are painfully short, like “Mama, There’s Nobody Here But The Baby” or “Ain’t Got No Honey Baby Now.” [Which I can’t find a working video of :/ ] 56 seconds? NO. Although Harry Taussig plays a killer version on steel guitar. I’ll close with the topical “Take Me Back to Baltimore.”

My dad is an incredible guitarist, and plays steel 12-string bottle-neck slide, though he removes the second string from the highest two strings, making it 10-string. He also picks in this style—and we are big fans of Ry Cooder who is a master at it. When I was a kid we always had music playing. My godfather played the fiddle and we had plenty of other random musicians at parties, which, in South Carolina through to the late 70s were always two- or three-day affairs. We had a whole crew of Hell’s Angels camped out in the back yard one time. My brother and I would sing, folk songs like “Froggy Went a-Courting.” That’s happiness for me, standing on the front porch catching lizards on the screen, listening to live music and the leathery sounds of the palmetto pushed by the wind, live oaks tossing their heads and their festoons of Spanish moss, my feet slowly blackening with the super-fine dust of mildew that settles inevitably on the grey floor of any screen porch, the sky and the hydrangeas planted around the base of the house and the screen porch ceiling all alike powder-blue, the smell of salt water and marsh and endless joints burning mingled into a perfect sweetness. High tide. Got to be high tide at 2 p.m. with a summer thunderstorm blowing up far across the river. Not low tide and with all hanging breathless and hot, and the mud flats on the sandbar across the river stinking in the sun. Eating cold boiled peanuts and watermelon and drinking sweet tea. Perfect. Except now I’m homesick!

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