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

by Belle Waring on May 24, 2015

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!



Roland Stone 05.24.15 at 6:26 pm

Guitar nerd comment: Hendrix’s guitars were not strung “upside down” like Cotten’s; his right-hand instruments were flipped over, but then the nut was reversed so that the bass E string was at the top, etc. Though Jimi could probably have played any guitar strung any way, behind his back or with his teeth…


Bill Murray 05.24.15 at 6:48 pm

Whenever I’m on a left-handed guitar playing, song-writing women, I love to bring up Barbara Lynn. Not folk, but it is dang good electric blues/soul. I know she’s been brought up here before, but I still like to add some examples:

Feel Alright

You’ll Lose a Good Thing


Bill Murray 05.24.15 at 6:50 pm

Oops, that first one is What’d I Say.

My brain was malfunctioning from the fine playing


NickS 05.24.15 at 8:35 pm

Interesting to read this. Both of my parents are musicians and active in the local folk music scene so your descriptions of growing up around music are familiar — except for the fact that the music, the climate and the culture were totally different. . . .

I was in the Pacific Northwest, so no summer heat and and the music that I grew up with was more British Isles and New England. I’ve heard “Freight Train” and Elizabeth Cotton, my nostalgia is triggered by something like Bill Staines or Joe Hickerson*.

(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.)

Public Service Announcement for any amateur folk musicians reading this: consider going to Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, an adult music camp at the end of July and beginning of August. I know both people who teach there and several people who have attended and feel like it a near-life-changing experience. Link goes to the brochure for 2015 (formatted badly for the web) and you can see that classes range from “Really Beginning Guitar” to “Swing And Jazz Soloing” to flatpicking with Wayne Henderson**. But the most memorable part of the experience isn’t the classes, but just living in cabins and hanging out in a beautiful spot on the woods around a whole bunch of people playing more music than they ever would in their normal life.

* Historical note: the racial animus between the Irish and the Italians in that song is notable.

** You can get a sense of the PSGW setting in that video.


NickS 05.24.15 at 9:53 pm

FWIW, I have a comment in moderation (probably because it had too many links).


PJW 05.24.15 at 11:20 pm

Shake Sugaree. So interesting. Recalls the song Sugaree (“Shake it, shake it, Sugaree”) by the Dead. The possible Elizabeth Cotten connection is noted here:


Alan White 05.25.15 at 12:44 am

Thanks Belle–and this brought back a flood of memories; you may recall I’m a fellow Southerner but from Northern Alabama and Southern Tennessee. Places like Rascal Town where my Dad grew up, along Hurricane Creek (pronounced “Harrikan”) flowing nearby. He was poor. I remember once how he recalled feeling so much more privileged (he would never have put it that way, never getting beyond 8th grade) than a friend who invited him over for supper, and all they had to eat were frogs–not just frog-legs–frogs. It was the depression in the rural South.

But he grew to love music. I have a WW2 photo of him in Reykjavik with a six-string, broadly smiling. He taught himself to strum chords, and he had a half-way decent voice.

In 1964 my Mom saved and saved and bought him a Chet Atkins electric guitar for 400 bucks–a fortune for us then. I remember him playing it way too loud, humming along to a Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go” or singing his best Cash version of “Rang of Farr” (so it sounded). But in two years it was gone–stolen by “friends” of my brother’s who ransacked the house and took anything that could be sold for drugs. He never had another guitar, though I guess his increasing consumption of Pabst Blue Ribbons could easily have been traded for another, but so it went.

I can never hear Reeves or Cash without thinking of Dad, so proud of that deafening Atkins. Bless my Mom’s heart though for giving him at least a couple of years of dreaming being a country singer.


Belle Waring 05.25.15 at 2:19 am

NickS: approved!
Alan: so sweet! I’m sorry about your bro’s sketchy friends stealing the guitar, that’s sad for your dad, and also your brother… People who are learning the guitar do play loud as hell sometimes. I used to arrange to borrow a guitar when my dad came to see me (RARE as he never leaves his home, but never. He hasn’t been outside S.C./GA since 2003, and the last before that was 1998. For weddings or graduation he’d come to where my brother and I were. Anyway, I had a friend bring over his steel guitar for my dad to play, and my friend (my dad’s age, actually) was only OK as a player, but HE PLAYED LOUD! LOUD. Granting a steel guitar’s just plain loud, but daaammmn.


Belle Waring 05.25.15 at 2:22 am

John went to music camp near there at Narrowstone (I think?) when he was in H.S., but sadly he had to play the French horn, that being his instrument at the time. His dad thought it would help him get into a good college. I mean, maybe it worked, but it was a lot of suffering through the French horn. He don’t miss it none, if you know what I mean.


NickS 05.25.15 at 2:28 am

NickS: approved!

Thanks. I see that I both misspelled Elizabeth Cotten’s name, and left out the Joe Hickerson link (I’ll try once more to see if I can embed it at the end).

He don’t miss it none, if you know what I mean.

That makes sense. I would just say that an adult music camp might be very different from a camp for teenagers. Much closer to just sitting around playing music as much as you want. But I wasn’t thinking of John specifically, except that it was the anecdote about him that made me think of it.

Joe Hickerson:



NickS 05.25.15 at 2:33 am

music camp near there at Narrowstone (I think?)

I had to look it up, but that is surprisingly close (assuming you’re talking about Marrowstone, WA) — about 50 miles away.


Harold 05.25.15 at 2:55 am

Thanks NickS, for the Joe Hickerson links. I wish someone would put up his rendition of Ethel Raim’s “Joe Hill” on Youtube. Or anything by Ethel Raim herself.


Neil Levy 05.25.15 at 3:33 am

Listening to her play, I wondered whether she was influenced by Blind Blake. Looking at the dates, though, I guess that they developed similar styles independently or had a common influence.


Alan White 05.25.15 at 4:04 am

Belle–thanks again. Is there anything better than steel guitar to pluck the harmonies of the soul? That Fandango was wonderful; Spanish guitar and most anything cello makes me melt.


Harold 05.25.15 at 4:22 am

I think she played in the ragtime-influenced Piedmont guitar-picking style, which predominated on the East Coast. Here is Hobart Smith, a white performer, also from Virginia.


Harold 05.25.15 at 4:23 am

oops. Forgot link to Smith:

He performed at the White House for FDR.


John Holbo 05.25.15 at 4:35 am

Just want everyone to know I’ve moved on. Current project:

The original Lindsey Buckingham way of playing it is just impossible. This way is simpler and sounds good, too.


Harold 05.25.15 at 4:37 am

I can’t resist adding Jack Elliott’s inimitable performance,

He learned Piedmont picking from Reverend Gary Davis, another East-Coast musical genius (b. S. Carolina) who taught many folk revival players, including Dave Van Ronk.


Harold 05.25.15 at 4:48 am

Etta Baker (N. Carolina & Virginia) also fabulous:


Another lurker 05.25.15 at 2:42 pm

This thing about having the thumb (the strongest finger) on the highest note (the one that carries the melody), is also the idea behind some of Godowsky’s Studies on Chopin’s Études.


bad Jim 05.26.15 at 3:37 am

I’m often puzzled by left-handers’ string-playing preferences. Particularly for bowed instruments, but also for most guitar styles, the left hand does the most intricate work.

My old friend and college roommate is a left-handed finger-picker, so for him handedness hardly matters, since both sets of fingers are equally engaged. In contrast, one of my nephews is left-handed and restrings his guitars to compensate, which makes it hard for him to share with his cousin.


Doug 05.26.15 at 2:48 pm

There is a national historic marker in Carrboro, NC, noting the (approximate) birthplace of Libba Cotton and describing her contributions to the folk movement. But naturally it can’t do justice to such a fascinating life. Thanks!


Harold 05.26.15 at 3:17 pm

Carrboro, I used to live there!


The Modesto Kid 05.26.15 at 6:50 pm

Freight Train is just such a fun song to play (with the guitar strung the normal way and played right-handed, thanks) — if I just pick up a guitar and start messing around, 7 or 8 times out of 10 I will be playing Freight Train before I know about it. (The other 2 or 3 times, probaby Alice’s Restaurant)


David J. Littleboy 05.28.15 at 3:43 pm

“I’m often puzzled by left-handers’ string-playing preferences. Particularly for bowed instruments, but also for most guitar styles, the left hand does the most intricate work.”

It sure looks that way at first, second, and even third look. But as a righty who has played both violin and guitar, it seems to me that producing the sound and the rhythm is, arguably, the most demanding part. As long as your left hand is in position somewhat ahead of time, you are home free; but it’s the right hand motion that has to actually create the sound at the precise instant it needs to be created. (It seems that jazz is harder than classical in terms of the accuracy of rhythm that’s required, maybe.) On violin, most players never figure out how to produce the power of tone required to be a soloist, and that’s all right hand. You can largely tell how good a player is from listening to them play one note.

But mostly it’s just that both hands have impossibly difficult tasks that one has to just put the work in to learn, so it really doesn’t matter, other than one way or the other being marginally easier when you are first starting (maybe). But once you’ve put in a few years getting competent at one way of doing it, having to spend the same amount of time relearning it the other way would be excruciating, so you’re stuck doing it the way you started.


Michael Griffin 05.30.15 at 2:31 am

I saw her at Sweetwater in Mill Valley. She said very forthrightly that she was disappointed no one had brought her flowers.
I left immediately and ran running all round the residential area of downtown, then ran running back to the gig and gave them to her. She was graciously a little just a little disdainful of that unarranged bouquet.
She meant a lot to me.


bad Jim 05.30.15 at 8:33 am

Littleboy, thanks a lot. It’s great to hear from a practitioner, especially one with experience in a range of genres.

It’s occurred to me that the left hand is typically involved in a clamping action, as in many activities for right-handers, so while the left’s fingering may be more intricate, the balance of roles is much the same as for other mechanical tasks.

As to violinists, I’ll defer to your judgement, but my impression is that the bad ones have a hearing deficiency, and can’t detect that the note they’re playing is not quite right.


Batocchio 05.30.15 at 8:49 am

It’s nice to see to a post about Elizabeth Cotten. I’m a lefty and play left-handed, and do a fair amount of fingerpicking. “Freight Train” was one of the first fingerpicking songs I taught myself. Luckily, a few luthiers don’t charge extra for left-handed guitars. (My acoustic is a Larrivée, which I love — it’s not one of the really fancy ones.)

Responding to the discussion upthread — I tried playing both right-handed and left-handed, and left-handed felt more natural. If I were playing lots of lead guitar, or lots of bar chords and strumming, playing right-handed (as lefty Mark Knopfler does) would probably be an advantage. For fingerpicking, the picking hand does considerable work.


bad Jim 05.31.15 at 6:41 am

This is great! I make two off-hand comments and get two thought-provoking responses. Thanks, Batocchio.

So how about thumbs? The most versatile digit of one hand dances, whether plucking or bowing, while the other opposable digit is stuck in a supporting role (though my finger-picking friend used all ten fingers). Typing is worse: the right thumb just thumps the space bar.

In contrast my millennial nieces and nephews hunch over their smart phones, all thumbs, imitating tyrannosaurs, tapping out texts.

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