In the grey drifts of annotation that accumulate on the backs of old folk music LPs there’s the term “Cotten-style” guitar. It refers to the technique of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, a self-taught guitar genius who played a conventionally-strung instrument left-handed, and so upside down; low strings at the bottom and high strings at the top.
Unlike much of such technical analysis, “Cotten style” explains something easily audible. That she used her thumb to dab out the melodies and fingers to pick the bass notes partly accounts for the striking gentleness and clarity of her music. With no overt drama and no showy flourishes, like the flutter of a skilled knitter’s needles her playing is an even flow of delicate, precise gestures building something intricate and elegant.
Shake Sugaree is a trove of guitar and banjo jewels. An astonishingly detailed piece like “Fox Chase” and other perfectly wrought instrumentals like “Buck Dance” and “Washington Blues” are folk art master-pieces without the likes of which guitar composers like the great John Fahey would have never found inspiration.
The guitar playing, though, is the last thing you notice on the show-stopping first track. The tune is simple and pretty. The words are strangely worldly wise – about the tobacco-chewing, cane-growing singer having pawned all her possessions – and childish at the same time. It’s the voice on the song “Shake Sugaree” that does it. It’s not Cotten but Brenda Evans, and most unlike any other recording you’re likely to hear, the voice of a 12-year-old.
However assured Evans’s unforgettable performance, she sounds young. When Cotten was that age herself, however, she was already out at work as a house cleaner in her native North Carolina, three years from the birth of her first child and about to get religion and give up the worldly music for which she has been famous for over four decades.
Cotten’s eventual return to music is a legendary story. She was working as a “domestic” for the Seeger family in Washington – ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, his wife, Ruth, and their children, Pete, Mike and Peggy – ground zero of the white, middle-class folk music revival of the late 50s (“practically the equivalent of Shakespeare working as a copy runner at the local newspaper office” suggests Eugene Chadbourne on the All Music Guide). Thus “discovered”, overheard quietly having a go on a guitar lying around the house, she was ready to record the first of three LPs for Folkways.
Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar (1957) contained a song she had composed at 12, “Freight Train”, whose reception must have been encouraging to say the least. Immediately covered by Glaswegians Nancy Whiskey and the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group, it became a chart hit in the UK (and was popular here in New Zealand). Bob Dylan recorded the song and later played “Shake Sugaree”, and the Grateful Dead are among the dozens of other artists who took up her material in the following years.
Cotten was soon performing at various folk and blues festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife from 1968 to 1971. She won the National Folk Association’s Burl Ives Award for her contribution to American folk music in 1972, was recognised by the Smithsonian as a “living treasure” and continued to perform into her 80s, receiving a Grammy for her fourth and last album Elizabeth Cotten Live! (Arhoolie, 1985) just two years before she died at 92.
Unlike her peers on the folk circuit, the likes of Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt and Sleepy John Estes, she had no cache of crackly 78s behind her, and had never been a professional musician. Indeed her gendered social position in part explains her namesake technique: she had to teach herself to play covertly, sneaking turns on her brother’s out-of-bounds banjo, and hence had no choice but to play the instrument strung as she would find it.
Another aspect of Cotten’s calm, sober and dignified sound, then, is its domestic character. There are hints of religion, but it’s not gospel. There are dance tunes, but what folklorologists distinguish as “parlour ragtime”. The title tune was a lullaby for the grandchildren: Cotten’s granddaughter Evans, along with her brother and sister, co-wrote the verses for the title song during bedtime collaborations just before it was included on the original issue of this, their Grandma’s second album. This CD adds to the original 1967 issue 10 unreleased tracks. Their perfection – even in the false start take of one tune – blends them seamlessly into a selection that now plays even more like an intimate recital.
SHAKE SUGAREE, Elizabeth Cotten (Smithsonian Folkways).