Elizabeth Cotten, adopted by the Seeger family, then discovered

A bit of luck when selling dolls

"My mammy bought me a guitar for $3.75 — to her sorrow.”
  • "My mammy bought me a guitar for $3.75 — to her sorrow.”
  • Image by Zeke Larsen

“I was here about a year ago, I think they told me last night. It's kind of hard to remember. . . places I go to and how long it’s been, because I don’t think about it. And I didn’t know this is where I was coming until I got here and then when I came in the door, I said, 'I been here before.’ I looked around and I said, ‘Oh, yes, I certainly been here before.’ ”

She walks on stage slowly, waving one hand and carrying a black handbag over the other arm. threading her way through the people and their applause. Sitting down on a straight-backed wooden chair, she sets her handbag on the floor, picks up a guitar that is already tuned for her, and says to the audience, “It’s nice to see a house with my fans and friends. I guess many of you know me. I’m Elizabeth Cotten from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was raised there, went to work, and bought my first guitar there.” Her black hair, with a chevron of white at her forehead, is pulled back from her face. Her eyebrows and the shadows under her eyes are dark, and the thin pouches of her cheeks fall easily into a smile. She sings in a voice that cracks and breaks, and she speaks dryly, with a gentle cadence. Frequently, in the same breath with which she ends a song, she says a quiet “Thank you.” Between songs, she wipes her fingers on a small white cloth.

Elizabeth Cotten: “I got my other name when I was working in the Seeger family."

Elizabeth Cotten: “I got my other name when I was working in the Seeger family."

For fifty years Elizabeth Cotten washed and ironed more clothes, scrubbed more walls and floors, and cooked in more kitchens than most people ever get to see: other people’s clothes, walls, floors, and kitchens. “I worked all the time,” she says about her past. “I never knew a day I didn’t work. You had to work if you lived. I didn’t know anything about anything but very hard work.” Now she works hard playing concerts. “Life hasn’t been too pleasant for me, but it’s better now than it’s ever been because I’m not doing that muscle work – that's what hurts. I play just as many concerts as I can get. I’m going to do it as long as lean. I like what I'm doing and I don’t see no need to stop.”

Her most recent concert tour brought her to San Diego, in April, to perform at the Old Time Cafe in Leucadia. She was touring with Mike Seeger, the bluegrass and traditional mountain folk musician and collector who was instrumental in arranging her very first concert twenty years ago. They were staying in the Solana Beach home of Pearl Wolfe and Bill Goldsmith, proprietors of the Old Time Cafe. It's the day after her concert. A train goes by on the other side of Highway 101 — the San Diegan, which leaves San Diego for Los Angeles daily at 1:40 p.m. “Maybe that’s the tumbling noise I heard last night,” says Elizabeth Cotten. “I didn't know it was the train.”

She was just talking about “Freight Train,” her famous song. “I've heard ‘Freight Train' so much, that's not my favorite any more. I've had to play it so much. I wrote that song when I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was ten or eleven and I didn't have a guitar yet. There was a place not far from home where we would stand, and when the train would go and come we would wave at the train. There was only but one track. I always liked trains anyway.”

Almost everyone knows that song, even if they’ve never heard of the black child who wrote it. She is an old woman now, walking on stage slowly because her knees are stiff from all those floors. In every concert, she is asked to sing it. “Freight train, freight train ...” She pauses with a small smile to hear the words from us. ”... Running so fast . . . please don’t tell what train I'm on . . . they won’t know where I'm gone.”

Work had to come first, before music. “When I was eleven years old I wanted a guitar. I didn't have no way to get it unless I went to work. I knocked on doors and I said. Missus, would you like someone to work for you?' At the third door, she said. What can I do? I said, ‘I can sweep your floor, I can set your table ... I can even lay a fire in your stove.' I stayed that day and started to work for her. They paid me seventy-five cents a month. A month. After a while they said. We are going to give you some more money. The next time they gave me one dollar. A month. Now, I don’t mean four weeks; I mean from the first day of the month to the last. I gave the money to my momma and told her I wanted a guitar. My mammy bought me a guitar for $3.75 — Stella, and didn't I love Stella. My mammy bought me a guitar for $3.75 — to her sorrow.”

She taught herself to play, and because she is left-handed, upside down was how she played. “It’s just my comfort, the way I'm doing everything, not what everyone else did. I couldn’t do it the other way. I tried it the other way and I could hardly strum. My brother said. You play it upside down, turn it around or reverse the strings. If I said. Help me, he said that. I stopped asking because I got tired of his answer.

“I give myself credit for about everything I do. Nobody ever did take much time with me.” That’s how she learned to play the guitar, and that's how she learned to cook. “When I got married I wanted some cakes for Christmas. I asked my sister. Sister, how do you make a cake? She just told me, she didn’t write anything down. Next day I got up and made mv cakes. They were just lovely.” She named herself. "My parents didn’t name me. I didn’t have a name when I went to school. My family called me Sis and Little Sis; my mother called me Babe. The teacher asked me. Little Sis, do you have a name? I said yes. She said. What is it? I said Elizabeth. I just said it right off, out of the blue sky. I don’t know where I got it.” She even changed her birthdate. “My birthdate was on January 6. When my mother died she died on January 6, on my birthday, and I just dropped it back one day. Now my birthday is on January 5.”

Elizabeth Cotten enjoys talking about her age. She asks her audience, “Does anybody here know my age?” When no one answers, she teases, “Does anybody want to know?” Though there are yeses all around, she doesn’t tell, until later. “I’m eighty-six years old, believe it or not. My grandson said, ‘Granny, you not eighty-six years old. I know how old you are. You eighty-eight!’ ”

She has a certain superstition about death. “After my mother died. I didn’t want to stay in Chapel Hill, so I moved to Washington to live with my daughter. A child asked me once, how come I haven’t died yet? I told him. ‘You die when it’s time for you to die, and you can’t help it.’ Thank God, I haven’t died yet. Everyone’s gone but me. I’m the only one left. 1 don’t want to live in Chapel Hill any more. I tell them, when I die, you don’t have to bother sending my body back down there, you just bury me where it’s convenient. When I left 1 had four grandchildren. I lost all I had there. 1 lost my whole family there — three brothers, one sister, mother and father. My sister was the last. I lost them there, and didn’t feel like going back. There’s nothing for me to go back for. I’m afraid I’ll die there too if I go back. Someone said in a concert. Why don’t you move here, then? and I said. You mean that people don’t die here?”

  • When I die just bury me deep
  • Down at the foot of Chestnut Street
  • So I can hear old Number Nine
  • As she goes roaring by.

She has a daughter, five grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandchild. “I’m old enough to have all of that.” She was the baby in her family. “There was about a year, or two years, between us all. My oldest brother was the one with the banjo. He hung his banjo on the wall and when he came home from work he’d play it. When he went back to work I'd take the banjo down and turn the pegs, like 1 was playing it. Sometimes I broke a string and I'd hide under the bed, afraid he was going to scold me But he never did. He was named after President Garfield. I hadn't thought of that until . . . on this tour I thought of it and I’ve said it two or three times. I played a little song and I said. ‘This song is about as old as President Garfield and I want you all to learn these songs because they are old; they are older than I am.’

She was Elizabeth Nevilles until she was fifteen, when she married Frank Cotten. She joined the Baptist church and played music there. “The deacon told me I couldn't play my worldly songs. I give this church the credit of learning to play church songs.” She was baptized; she had a child. Gradually there was too much work, and church, and family, and she stopped playing music. The story of how she started playing again and how she started giving concerts began with a Christmas job in a Washington, D.C., department store, twenty-five or thirty years later.

“They hired me to sell dolls, baby dolls. Two or three of us worked there and one day the door opened and this lady walked in and I made a wish, I wished to work for her. Why? Because she looked like such a good Christian lady. I didn’t say a word to nobody. I was making that wish when she walked up to me and said, I come to see dolls for my two girls. I searched around and found a doll that she liked. Then the oldest little girl got strayed off in the store and she was crying because she didn't know how to get to her mother. I took her up and her mother said, Have you been working here long? and I said no. She said, If you ever decide to stop working here, call this number, and she handed me a card with her phone number. I felt like I had my job right then. When New Year’s was over I found that lady’s phone number and I went right to the phone and called her and made her know who was calling. She said, Can you come out? You know I was going to say yes. When I got there she was waiting for me and we went up to the third floor and she told me everything she wanted me to do. She said, Don’t try to do everything in one day. Arrange this work the way you want to do it, just as long as you get it done. Downstairs in the kitchen she said, Go into the icebox, get yourself a glass of milk, get yourself bread and butter, cookie, apple, or orange. Just anything you see around that you want to eat, sit down ten or fifteen minutes and eat that. Nobody should work eight hours without taking a little rest between time. Well, when she said that to me, I fell in love with her, sure enough. Nobody had ever said that to me. My mother had never said. Babe, sit down, ain’t you tired. When she said that to me it made me love her.” Elizabeth Cotten worked every Saturday for the Seeger family: Ruth Crawford Seeger, composer; Charles Seeger, ethnomusicologist and father of Pete Seeger; and their children, Mike, Peggy, who is the folksinger married to folksinger Ewan MacColi, Barbara, and Penelope, a homestyle musician. (“I got my other name when I was working in the Seeger family. The two-year-old couldn’t say my name, Elizabeth. She said, ‘I can’t say that word. I’m gonna call you Libba.' "

It was about five years later that they discovered she could play music. As Mike recalls, she told them she had almost forgotten how to play. Having all those instruments around reminded her and she just took them down and started to play. Mike Seeger started recording her almost immediately thereafter, and in 1957 recorded her for Folkways. “We recorded her whole album with her on the second floor of her house, with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren all hanging around while we were recording late at night. It was very homey. That got the idea around, the idea that she could play. At that time there was no possibility of playing concerts; people just didn’t do that. A couple of years later, largely as a result of that record, we had a possibility of putting a concert on together and so we did.” That first concert was at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a small, liberal arts school that in the Forties and Fifties sponsored folk festivals and, in the mid-Sixties, turned to folk rock and hard rock. “Then she did all the folk festivals in the mid-Sixties: UCLA, Newport, Chicago in ’61 or ’62.’’

Her concerts are a mixture of song and story. The songs are her own or they are church songs, and the stories are about her childhood, her family, and Chapel Hill. But you don’t learn much about Chapel Hill from her, and for the same reason that you can’t ask her what she thinks of San Diego. As Mike Seeger explains, “Libba doesn’t really have a sense of place. Some people’s consciousness is such that it’s more important where you’re at as a person than where you’re at on land. Beyond that, you have a sense of priorities when you get to that age. The most important thing to her is how people are doing, how she feels.”

  • When I’m dead and in my grave
  • No more good times do I crave.
  • Place a stone at my head and feet
  • Tell my friends that I've gone to sleep.

“When you got one tune, you get two. When you get two, you get three. And you just keep going on.”

Everyone asks Elizabeth Cotten where her music comes from, and if the words are about her life. “That’s what everybody says. I don’t think so. I was just a child, young, and didn’t know nothing else to sing so I just put the words together. The music comes from me,” she says with a laugh, Hee hee. “Most of those things I just . . . it’s me. There’s one or two, like ‘When I’m Gone.’ It’s an old tune; I put words to it to write the song about myself, but it’s old. I heard it ever since I growed up. When I learned to play the guitar I just wanted to do it, so I did. I guess you’ve heard it? ‘When I’m gone. I’m gonna come no more. Friend, you gonna miss me when I’m gone.’ It’s about me and it’s my words.”

Mike Seeger says of her music, “It comes from Afro-American Southern people, but there was also a fair amount of parlor music around then, too. Banjo picking, band music, church music, all of these things have gone into her music. It’s not exactly a pure thing, what she’s done. She’s a creative musician. Most musicians of that kind will take ideas from different places and put them together as they see fit, and then it’ll be their own.

.“Her last major creative spurt, as far as I’m concerned, was in the mid-Sixties when she was seventy years old. She did some things in the early Seventies, too — playing with time, theme and variation ideas. I recorded a long version of ‘Wilson Rag.’ She was constantly changing it each time she played it. To most people, until they’ve heard her for a few years, it sounds just the same.

“People like to hear her talk on the stage just as much as hear her music because her music is far more subtle than her speech. Her music is incredibly subtle and complex and well thought out. I play music with her so that I get to know her music better. It still develops in lesser ways. I’m amazed that she’s able to think that way at age eighty-six. When I play with her, that’s when she really starts taking the right and left turns all the time, weaving around, because she wants to make it difficult for me, or challenging, should I say. Sometimes she’s conscious of it, sometimes I’m not sure. She says she doesn’t know she’s doing a lot of it, but I know from the way that she smiles at me when she throws me a curve. She can be evil — sometimes it’s sly, sometimes it’s playful.”

She introduces one of her songs this way: “When I was a little girl my mother worked all the time. We had a neighbor. Miss Mary was very nice to me. When Momma was gone and there was no one to cook, she made biscuits in her hand, the kind when you bake it it has a lot of crumb. She did that for me so long I began to love Miss Mary very much. Then one day she told a lie about me. After that I used.to sit on my porch and sing a song that she didn’t know was about her. Now there ain’t nobody to punish me because they [her parents] both dead, so i can say it now: Miss Mary, this song’s about you. 'There is one old woman. Lord, in this town, keep her telling her lies on me. I wish to my soul that old woman would die ...' "

In the Sixties, in what is commonly referred to as the heyday of folk music (Mike Seeger says, “It’s what they call the folk music heyday, but that was popular music, city people learning folk songs; to me, the real heyday is now, as far as people playing real folk music, traditional music”), someone gave a name to Elizabeth Cotten’s style of playing the guitar: “Cotton-pickin.’ ’’ Mike Seeger doesn’t like the term for its ‘ ‘connotations of darkies out in the field picking cotton.” He describes it as “her style of playing — she actually has about three or four styles — the style she uses in “Freight Train,’ where she plays the bass three strings with her first finger and the treble three strings with her thumb. It’s the way she picks, she plays single strings for the most part rather than playing chords. She plays the bass strings with her fingernail and the treble strings with her thumb. It makes the bass strings a little sharper and the treble strings not sharp at all, so it gives a mellow sound compared to the wav most right-handed people play. There’s really nobody that plays like her, but the style that Joan Baez and a lot of people play is based on my sister Peggy’s reworking of her (Cotten’s] style. It got its roots back in the Fifties, when people began listening to my sister play.”

These days, when Elizabeth Cotten isn’t playing concerts, she reads the Bible or watches TV, but mostly she relaxes. “Sometimes I can just relax and sometimes I can’t. And sometimes I lay awake late in the night, in and out all night long, trying to work out something that’s happened. Why did somebody say so and so. I’m not like that all the time, just sometimes. I lay awake and think about things that happened when I was a little girl, and why, and what make it, why did it happen, can I think why, what caused it, or did everything work out right. I get tired thinking about that and try to go to sleep. (It’s always the old. old things.) It’s terrible trying to think of something you did. what date was it, what month. Can’t remember anything hardly. I can’t get that back so I just try not to do it. But sometimes you just run into it. it just comes to you, you just got to think about what you did when you was little.

“I don’t remember my father, how he looked. I tries to know sometime, but I don’t know exactly how he looked. Old people didn’t have any pictures then. The way I got my mother’s picture, I had the man come in my home. 1 say I had to steal the picture, she didn’t know he was making it. Momma used to sit on the porch when anything was going on. I said. When she come and sit down I’m going to pretend you are taking my picture. You just say, Elizabeth, can you come a little closer, move this way or that way. And he was moving the camera on her all the time. So that’s how I got her picture. It's a good picture.”

At the end of her concert, after she’s played both sets straight through without intermission, Pearl Wolfe takes away her guitar. (Stella’s been gone for decades; she plays a Martin now.) She’s already played “just one more song,” and then another. She says, “I enjoyed playing with you all. God be with you all. I enjoyed it and I thank you. I love every one of you. Just two last words.” And. marking time with her fingertips:

  • Why don't you pray for me
  • And I'll pray for you . . .

“So goodnight, everybody.”

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