When I heard Elizabeth Cotten (1895-1987) was going into the Rock Hall, I nearly fell out of my chair! As host of “The Village Folk Show,” I regularly hear Cotten’s name from the mouths of prominent folk artists — Guy Davis, David Bromberg, Gillian Welch, Eliza Gilkyson, Amy Ray. Credited with the “Cotten-picking” guitar-playing style — she played left-handed and upside-down — this master’s impact on roots music is strong, deep and continuing.
Meanwhile, her story is amazing: While working in a department store in 1940s Washington D.C., Cotten discovered a crying, lost, little girl and returned her to her mother. The grateful mom: singer-songwriter Peggy Seeger, sister of legendary Mike Seeger, who promptly hired Cotten as a domestic for the family. When Mike Seeger discovered her long-dormant talent with a six-string, he recorded and released the 62-year-old’s first record, “Elizabeth Cotten: Folk Songs and Instrumentals with Guitar.”
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Following a concert at the home of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, Cotten became a fixture on the 1960s folk circuit, performing at the Newport Folk Festival, and later, Carnegie Hall. Her songs were covered by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Peter Paul and Mary, while fans Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Doc Watson,and Hurt paid her visits when their tours came through D.C.
Cotten continued playing live until her death in 1987 — a year after she won her first Grammy at 90. Thirty-five years later, folk artist and historian Rhiannon Giddens told me she’d intentionally walked in Cotten’s footsteps. “When I started getting into music, I learned [Cotten’s ‘Shakee Sugar’], and I also sung and studied with Mike and Peggy Seeger,” she said. “She’s been a part of the fabric of my music [since] I started listening to [folk].”
MarySue Twohy can be heard on SiriusXM The Village.
This essay is part of a series — in partnership with the on-air talent of SiriusXM — to pay tribute to the performers being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Nov. 5 in Los Angeles. Catch the complete Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2022 Induction Ceremony on HBO Nov. 19, at 8 p.m. ET, along with a simulcast on SiriusXM’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Radio (channel 310). SiriusXM listeners can also catch live, backstage coverage and commentary on Volume on the SXM app and on Faction Talk (channel 103).
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