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Elizabeth Cotten - Shake Sugaree

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Artist: Elizabeth Cotten

Album: Shake Sugaree

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

Review date: Oct. 13, 2004

“Age ain’t nothing but a number,” so sang the late Aaliyah. Less overtly, so did North Carolinian Elizabeth Cotton. Born in 1895, she learned to play guitar by sneaking into her brother’s room to practice while he was away. With her ear, she could play a song after hearing it once, and learned all the songs of the Carolina hills. At age 11, she wrote a little tune called “Freight Train.” At 12, she started working as a housecleaner for folks, and with marital and church duties calling, put away the guitar for some 25 years.

It was only after an encounter in a department store with composer/folklorist Ruth Crawford Seeger (matron to Pete, Peggy, and Mike Seeger) that she wound up working for their family. And were it not for Cotten getting caught picking at one of the guitars in their household, her distinct playing style might have never been heard by the rest of the world. Being a lefty, she learned to play by merely flipping the guitar upside-down, to where her thumb picked the treble strings, and her fingers the bass notes, giving her playing a style scarcely mimicked since.

She wound up recording her tune “Freight Train” in 1958, where it instantly ascended into the upper echelons of American folk (it even became a hit in the UK!), as if it had been around since the turn of the century. Having never been heard outside of her family parlor before, Cotton was now at the forefront of the blues revival, performing alongside other forgotten recording artists like “Mississippi” John Hurt, Skip James and Sleepy John Estes. Other songs she recollected from her early days in North Carolina and recorded became the foundation of folk for a whole new generation of players. Everyone from Taj Mahal to Delaney and Bonnie, from Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead, covered her songs, and they are now part of the American songbook.

Most of these familiar standards, like “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” aren’t to be found on Smithsonian’s second beautiful CD compiling of Elizabeth Cotton, Shake Sugaree, but the songs are ageless, still delightful. Her grandchildren even sing a few songs with her. “Shake Sugaree” spins a woeful tale of a fellow who has pawned every earthly possession to pay for the good times, regretting it not one iota. That the singer is not even 12-years-old takes nothing away from the weary wisdom of the tune.

The bulk of this set focuses on Cotton’s inimitable style of picking. She sings a little fragment of “Mama, Nobody’s Here but the Baby” (which will sound familiar to those who bought the O, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack), following it up with an instrumental take on gentle felicity. On “”Fox Chase,” wherein a different picking roll is introduced for each section (symbolizing each hound), minor chords ring out, and the tempo fluctuates, with the bass strings droning throughout, one sees where folks like Leo Kottke and John Fahey grabbed a few of their moves. The voices throughout are youthful, but with her tender playing, easygoing style, and knowing grace, it’s hard to grasp Cotton’s septuagenarian status at the time of these recordings. In the decades since this music was first heard, on into the 21st century, into the music of new folk players like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, Elizabeth Cotton’s style and spirit remain with us, proving her music to be timeless.

By Tad Abney

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