I first heard of Elizabeth Cotten back in the early ’90s via the firehose* song In Memory Of Elizabeth Cotton (sic), which they’d released when Cotten died back in 1987. I had no idea who Cotten was, but it was a beautiful, beautiful song.
Since I’ve been dipping my toe in country blues lately, Cotten’s name came up and I remembered the firehose song and checked her out. I wish I’d done it way back when I first heard the song, because then this extraordinary musician’s music could have been with me for that much longer.
Cotten is of that generation of folk and blues artists who dabbled in music before family, work and church took over and then got (re-)discovered in the US folk boom of the 50s and 60s (in Cotten’s case, by being housekeeper to the Seeger family). Her unique playing style (born partly out of playing a right handed guitar left handed and upside down, and through having no knowledge of standard tunings when she learned) is just gorgeous – a really fluid, rolling sound (inevitably labelled Cotten Picking). And her voice, which could range from gruff but warm to just sweet as honey, is one of the best of its kind.
She recorded a handful of albums between her 50s ‘discovery’ and her death (at 92) in 1987. Written when she was a child but not recorded till half a century later, Freight Train is probably her most famous tune (and the most direct influence on the firehose song), while Shake Sugaree, recorded in the late 60s, is the track that really made me sit up and listen.
Looking for artists in a similar gentle, rolling vein I finally got round to Mississippi John Hurt, who I think has a lot in common with Cotten, so as a bonus I’ve included one of his innumerable gems here.
(* you can add the fact that I MUCH prefer firehose to Minutemen to my ever-growing list of heresies if you want, but for all their genuinely radical approach and purity of intent, Minutemen were just a bit annoying to listen to.)