If you are a guitarist, you might notice that there is something strange about her technique. She was left-handed, but rather than stringing a guitar in reverse the way lefties usually do, she just played a standard-strung guitar upside down. She had to learn her own idiosyncratic chord shapes, and she played them by alternating bass with her fingers and playing melody notes with her thumb. This must have required some dedication! But none of it is as important as her sound and her material.
I came to Elizabeth Cotten through the Grateful Dead’s recording of “Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie.” Jerry Garcia also recorded “Freight Train,” as have about a million other people. But nothing is better than Elizabeth Cotten herself. In this performance, her voice is rough, but her guitar playing is exquisite.
There are lots of tabs and tutorials for “Freight Train” on the web. Mostly they get the notes right, but they rarely capture the hip, syncopated rhythms. For those, you need to listen to the recordings. The first step to learning how to play it is to practice the alternating bass pattern with your thumb. I recommend putting your guitar in drop D tuning and using your thumb to play low D, high D, low D, high D at a relaxed tempo. Do it steadily with a groove, and keep it up for as long as you can stand it, until it’s completely automatic. Then you can work on plucking strings with your index, middle and ring fingers independently.
Elizabeth Cotten is playing ragtime rather than blues per se, but she uses a lot of blues vocabulary. For example, she frequently uses string bends to make blue notes. You can hear her playing them in this performance of “Freight Train” – listen at 1:57, 2:44, and 3:03.
Like most Elizabeth Cotten tunes, “Freight Train” is in C. She bends D up toward E-flat, aiming for what sounds to me like a just intonation interval called the subminor third. You can think of it as a flattened minor third, but I hear it as more of a very wide second.
For an even deeper blues feel, listen to “Honey Baby Your Papa Cares For You.”
This is my favorite Elizabeth Cotten tune, and sometimes I think it’s the most beautiful piece of music I have ever heard in my life. Here’s a live performance on Pete Seeger’s TV show.
Here’s my transcription of the album version. It sounds a whole step lower, I assume because the guitar was tuned down. I’m writing it the way it’s fingered.
The tune begins with a standard blues trope that I refer to as the blues lament bass. Beatles fans will recognize it as the basis of “Dear Prudence.” (The Beatles played “Freight Train” in their Quarrymen days.) The notes I colored blue in my chart are blue notes, bent up a little sharp. They are not half-step bends; they land somewhere between A-sharp and B. This interval is often called the neutral third, but I think it’s more likely that Elizabeth Cotten is aiming for the just intonation minor third (a little sharper than the one from 12-TET). She repeatedly plays this note played against the open B string. She also plays it against the open E string, making a very bluesy variant on the tritone – maybe it’s a seven-limit narrow tritone?
Ragtime uses more Western European harmony than blues does. In “Honey Babe Your Papa Cares For You”, the main ragtime element is the prominent use of V7. In the key of G, that’s D7. Elizabeth Cotten voices it in first inversion, with F-sharp on the bottom. This is a highly guitaristic sound, and it’s especially tasty played fingerstyle. However, she never plays a full D7 chord; instead, she plays a D triad with E and/or B on top. She also uses that blues A-sharp on it. This makes all makes it feel more like part of blues tonality than European functional harmony.
The B section of the tune is even less European-sounding. It alternates between G and E minor, using the blues A-sharp against the B and E strings throughout. Over G, that’s a sharp minor third against the major third and sixth. Over E minor, it’s a sharpened sharp fourth against the fifth and root. How cool is that?
The tune ends with an unexpected shift into the key of C, with the characteristic “Elizabeth Cotten ending”: C to F to C to a quick F-G-C. But the F and G are voiced in unusual ways. The F has A in the bass, which makes it feel more like Dm. The G has F in the bass, which makes it feel more like F. It’s so hip!
Beyond their intrinsic musical pleasures, Elizabeth Cotten’s recordings are extraordinary historical documents. The only reason they exist is that she happened to get a job as a maid in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s household when she was in her sixties. Mike Seeger heard her play, and made some home recordings of her. We take for granted that recording devices are everywhere now, but back in the 1950s a reel-to-reel tape recorder was a bulky and expensive piece of high-tech gear. These recordings became Elizabeth Cotten’s first album, which includes both “Freight Train” and “Honey Babe Your Papa Cares For You”.
Elizabeth Cotten didn’t develop her guitar style or write her tunes in a vacuum. She had grown up in a musical family in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and started banjo and guitar as a young child. She stopped playing at 17 when she got married and had a daughter, and didn’t resume for several decades. This means that the music on her albums mostly dates back to the 1910s or earlier. This period of Black musical history is not well documented. The earliest recordings I can find are from the late 1920s, and they are murky at best. There is some sheet music for fingerstyle ragtime guitar from that era as well, but who knows how faithfully it captures what people were actually playing? Transcriptions certainly don’t convey the blue notes. It’s impossible to know how much of Elizabeth Cotten’s playing uses the shared tropes of her family and community and how much is specific to her, but at least some of what we’re hearing in her recordings is a window into a different musical world.
Nothing conveys the vast span of time contained in Elizabeth Cotten’s music like “Shake Sugaree.” Her great-grandchildren wrote the verses, and in this recording, it’s sung by her great-granddaughter Brenda Evans.
What does the phrase “shake sugaree” mean, though? Being a folk music fan means hearing a lot of these mysterious old-timey phrases and not understanding them. The Grateful Dead’s song “Sugaree” references the phrase, but that isn’t very enlightening, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were Elizabeth Cotten fans and just thought it sounded cool. I learned from Google that the Sugaree were a Native American tribe in the Carolinas; maybe the song references a dance of theirs? The annotated Robert Hunter lyric book says that Elizabeth Cotten was actually referring to the tradition of shivaree, but gives no explanation as to why she would call it “sugaree.” If someone can enlighten me, please do.
Anyway, I bring all this up because Rhiannon Giddens does a lovely version of “Shake Sugaree” and she talks about what Elizabeth Cotten means to her:
Her music sits at a crossroads of a lot. She is a woman, she is Black, she is playing a music that doesn’t really have an immediate fit: It’s not bluegrass, it’s not Appalachia old-time. Her particular style of Piedmont-style guitar picking is representative of the whole region in so many ways, and even that itself wasn’t something that was well-known. So for me, Elizabeth Cotten represents the untold and countless musicians who were at these crossroads who were, actually, really, a huge part of the fabric of American music. She’s coming straight out of that incredible cross-cultural soup that can be hard to pin down into anything we call a genre today. That’s one of the things that comes over me when I think about her.
Also, the idea of how women hold traditions in a certain way, because so often they are domestic, they are in the house, they’re not out there performing. There were women performers up until a certain point, but as soon as a lot of money gets made, then the men start to take over. In her generation, there were so many women who were holding music in the house and whose children would then go out and be performers. There are so many of those stories. The ones that are exceptions, like hers, they prove the rule.
There is a lot to unpack here. It’s nice that Elizabeth Cotten eventually got the recognition she deserved, and that she made some money. But the romanticized portrait of her tends to flatten out her humanity. You get this picture of a warm, maternal figure who only existed to teach young white people about authenticity. I am guilty of this! It’s more fun to think about her as a folk music star than to think about the five decades she spent as a domestic worker before that. But she deserves to be thought of as a complete person in a context.