Her Story: Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Cotten (1893-1987) was an American blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter. She was left-handed and taught herself how to play the guitar, strung for a right-handed player, upside-down. Cotten developed her own unique style known as “Cotten Picking”. She is best known for the song “Freight Train” written in 1904 when she was just 11 years old. The song was eventually recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Grateful Dead and Pete Seeger. 

The first instrument that Cotten taught herself to play was her brother’s banjo, she played it in reverse position because she was left-handed, by age 8 she was playing full songs. She was forced to quit school at age 9 and began working as a domestic. At the age of 11, she bought her first guitar with her savings from work.

She married young and worked as a nanny and domestic helper for years. Then, after a decade of working with the Seeger family, they rediscovered her amazing talent. In 1958, at age 62, Cotten recorded her first album. She began to tour throughout North America and her music became a staple of the folk revival of the 1960s. Cotten built her musical legacy on the foundation of African-American instrumental traditions from the late 19th- and early 20th-century. She inspired and influenced generations of younger artists. 

In 1984 Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and was later recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as a “living treasure.” She received a Grammy Award in 1985 when she was ninety, almost eighty years after she first began composing her own works. 

She made history with her unique musical style and her legacy will be kept alive by generations of people that cherish her songs and her musical genius. 

About The Author


Mother, Photographer, Wisecracker.... not necessarily in that order.


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