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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten (née Nevill) (January 5, 1893 – June 29, 1987) was a profoundly original American folk musician, vectoring between the music of isolated early 20th century North Carolina and the multimodal hypersounds of the present – check her out playing in crystal clear black and white on your youtube. A southpaw church and porch picker, Ms. Cotten played a righty-tuned guitar upside down and sang the folk and blues of a self-possessed and sassy little girl, who are known to come in all genders, ages, and sizes, Scout Finch a few decades earlier and from the unscripted side of town. 

Ms. Cotten's musical family and environs might have foreordained her, but that destiny nearly passed her by. She mostly stopped playing around 1910, when she became a single teenaged mother in Chapel Hill. Then, "In the mid-1940s, [she] chanced to meet composer Ruth Crawford Seeger at a department store. They began to talk, and Seeger soon hired Cotten to work in the Seeger household. It was here that Cotten became motivated to pick up the guitar again" (cite). Pete Seeger recorded her on reel-to-reel tape and projected her through barriers of race, class, gender through the folk revival and into national memory.

Her first record, Folksongs And Instrumentals With Guitar, appeared on Folkways (FG 3526) in 1958 (youtube), and it introduced the world, including eager young white (wannabe or legit) folkies with turntables and a bit of disposable income, to a totally localized and yet probably universally appealing "country ragtime" style and a set of songs like a bracing draw from a cold spring. Cotten's repertoire tapped timeless British Isles-meet-Africana –i.e., American—stock such as "Going Down The Road Feeling Bad", a bunch of honeybabe songs and, of course, "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" (discogs), but her biographic originals are what will slay you.

She was on in years by the time she was "discovered", but this suited her frailing country voice just fine, a spirited gem coming through loud and clear on Folkways vinyl, which rescued many a prospective legend from the obscurity that befell those who never got wire-recorded and waxed in. But it's not just that, it's also the great store of the written word, promising extended-if-not-eternal life for those it picked up and, in the absence of vinyl, utter obscurity for those it missed. "Cut off by the cataclysms of the Great Depression and the Second World War and by a national narrative that had never included their kind," Greil Marcus wrote of many of the musicians appearing on the Harry Smith's Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), "they appeared now like visitors from another world, like passengers on a ship that had drifted into the sea of the unwritten" (Marcus 1997).

Cotten was double-lucky, because not only was she recorded, but she also found pulp-and-glue permanence when Pete Seeger and John Cohen included two of her originals in their New Lost City Ramblers Songbook (1964).

Garcia fell in love with both "Freight Train" and "Oh Babe, It Ain't No Lie". Both are utterly haunting, based in Ms. Cotton's childhood and expressing a yearning place-boundedness that has been the fate of most everyone who has ever lived, statistically speaking, yet a world that nevertheless can remain alien and estranged. Ms. Cotten explained OBIANL:
That's the song I wrote about a lady who lived next door to us. My mother had to go to work and this lady would teach children. She told my mother something: made my mother punish me. They hurt me all the day. 'Cause I know what she told my mum was not true. That song's 'bout me getting punished. My feelings got hurt, 'cause I did not do what Miss Mary said I did. And I used cry in a bed, and a little verse came to me, a pretty tune came to me, and I made a little song, a little tune I love.
One old woman, Lord, in this town
Keep a-telling her lies on me
Wish to my soul that old woman would die
Keep a-telling her lies on me

Oh babe, it ain't no lie
Oh babe, it ain't no lie
Oh babe, it ain't no lie
You know this life I'm living is [mighty] high
If OBIANL is a wise child's lament at a world dark with injustice, "Freight Train" provides the dream of escape. Ms. Cotten:
We used to watch the freight train. We knew the fireman and the brakeman, and the conductor, my mother used to launder for him. They'd let us ride in the engine, put us in one of the coaches while they were backing up and changing ... That was how I got my first train ride. We used to walk the trestle and put our ear to the track and listen for the train to come. My brother, he'd wait for this train to get real close and then he'd hang down from one of the ties and swing back up after the train had passed over him.
No wonder this one, too, brings ample morbidity – that kind of shit can go really wrong in a hurry.
When I'm dead and in my grave
No more good times here I crave
Place the stones at my head and feet
And tell them all I've gone to sleep

When I die, oh bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chestnut Street
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she comes rolling by
Garcia tried on both tunes for an abortive Arista album project during November 1976 sessions at Elliot Mazer's His Master's Wheels (HMW) Studios (OBIANL features on All Good Things, disc 3, track 11). (For more on the '76 studio work, see.) They would have fit perfectly. OBIANL found the more fulsome later live expression, appearing in every Garcia acoustic configuration of the 1980s, from the Dead's September-October 1980 treatment (immortalized on Reckoning, Arista A2L-8604, April 1981), to Amsterdam with Bobby Weir (10/11/81), Garcia's only solo engagement after 1965 (4/10/82), to the many Garcia-Kahn and Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band (JGAB) gigs later in the decade. "Freight Train" had preceded OBIANL at the solo acoustic show, but Garcia couldn't remember the words and shelved it, as a known and public proposition, for over a decade. He took it back up with Grisman, and it appeared on their Not For Kids Only (Acoustic Disc ACD 9, 1993) chock full of New Lost City Ramblers Song Book chestnuts. By that time, and when it appeared as an acoustic one-off during an electric JGB equipment failure at the Knickberbocker Arena in Albany (11/3/93), but especially on its two 1994 public voyages, the song's lullaby came across a sad Siren's song, a stone being laid at Garcia's own pleading head and feet, buried deep under ol' Chestnut Street.

In response to a fan's concern that the Dead had ripped Elizabeth Cotten off with its "Sugaree" (evoking, as it did, her "Shake Sugaree"), manager Richard Loren said in May 1981 that she was a "great hero" to Garcia (1). When she died, Garcia took to dedicating OBIANL to her memory, the only artist he ever consistently recognized in this way, as far as I know. At many of these shows, these were the only words he spoke to the audience, a testament to the high esteem in which he held her.

! ref: (1) Grateful Dead Archive, MS332, Business Papers, Second Accrual (preliminary), Box 1008.


  1. "Garcia tried on both tunes for an abortive Arista album project during November 1976 sessions at Elliot Mazer's His Master's Wheels (HMW) Studios."

    Tell me more. Who was he recording with? I need more more more!

  2. It was the Keith and Donna JGB. Blair mentions it in the liner notes for the All Good Things boxset. It's where some of those outtake tunes come from - Mighty High, Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie, Magnificent Sanctuary Band, etc. I have a bunch of stuff written up about it.

  3. The story is that Jerry made sure to record "Ain't No Lie" on Reckoning as a way to get LIbba Cotten a little royalty money. For various complicated reasons, "Freight Train" was published in England, and much or all of the money did not go to Cotten. However, "Ain't No Lie" money went her way. The story goes that when Reckoning was released, the long-retired Cotten was living with her (very adult) daughter in Virginia. She bought a new refrigerator, and when friends asked her where she got the money, she said "some dead people in California."

    Impossible to truly confirm, of course, but, hey, it's folk, man, and this is folklore.

  4. The freight train that Libba Cotten wrote about was the Hillsborough-to-Carrboro train, that ran on a spur off the Southern Rail mainline, almost to the UNC Chapel Hill campus. When the railroad was built in 1882, UNC faculty had insisted that the train arrive at least a mile from campus, to discourage undergraduates from leaving town. As a result, the train terminated in Carrboro (then called West End), a mile from campus, in a largely African American community. The opposite occurred, of course: all the undergraduates walked that mile, and the little town next to Chapel Hill came to life, later changing its name to Carrboro.

    The little train was called "The Whooper," for its horn sound, and carried both freight and passengers. It was the way out of then-rural Chapel Hill. Passenger service stopped in 1936. However, for a variety of provincial reasons, the little spur line is still in use. There is a three-day-a-week run from the (now) Norfoilk Southern Main Line to the UNC Chapel Hill power station, delivering coal. This will be phased out when UNC goes all natural gas. The train may live on as a commuter railroad, but that may be some years in the future.

    If you're at The Station restaurant at 201 Main in Carrboro, and the coal train goes rolling by, crank up "Freight Train" on your iPod--it's the same train.

  5. Thanks for the entry on Elizabeth Cotten.

    Worth noting that when Jerry performed "Freight Train" > "OBIANL" at his solo (early) show on 04/10/82, he did a nice rendition of "Wilson Rag" in the middle as a sort of transition between tunes. It would seem he had high respect for the famous Folkways LP, as he chose to perform the 3-tune medley right at the start of the show (second song), nerves and all. I was there in front, and JG did seem a bit nervous at first - and somewhat surprised by the roaring crowd. (Hey, it was Jersey, what did he expect anyway...?)

    I was lucky to see Elizabeth Cotten in December 1983, the show was in a church. (Her "road crew" was her daughter, who sat on stage with her and handed her the two Martins she used - one regular tuning, and one open-tuned.) I think she was well aware of the new interest in her music, as she featured OBIANL near the end of the set to a lot of applause. The highlight of the show was when she put down the guitar and sang "Let the Church Roll On" accompanied by everyone in the audience.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing that, Anon. I had not picked up on Wilson Rag bridging the other two songs - wow! I would have loved to see Ms. Cotten play, so cool that you were able to.

  6. Elliott: "I saw Eliz Cotton at the Croton on Hudson folk festival around '78 and she said something along the lines of "I got a refrigerator because Jerry Garcia paid me for my Shake Sugaree song.""

  7. She may have said something like that, but '78 seems a little early.
    The full story, from Dick Waterman, who'd booked Cotten's shows in earlier years:
    "Years ago I asked Elizabeth Cotten (who was almost 90 at the time) if she was getting royalties for her song 'Shake Sugaree' that had been done by the Grateful Dead as 'Sugaree.' She said that she had not, so I wrote a letter asking for an accounting. I got back a hailstorm of mail from their publisher, Ice Nine Music...scolding about all of the public domain versions of the song prior to Ms. Cotten's copyright.
    The matter was doomed at that point, but I had a chance conversation with John Scher, their East Coast promoter. I told him the story and he asked, 'Does Jerry know about this?' I told him that I was quite sure that it had never come to his personal attention.
    He told Jerry, and wheels immediately went into motion. The decision was that she would not collect on 'Sugaree,' but they would do 'Oh, Babe It Ain't No Lie' on their next album and she would be given an advance on the writer's royalties. They sent her about $700 - very big money back then - and she went out and bought herself the biggest refrigerator on the market. It was the talk of the town.
    I saw her some time later and asked if people were curious to know where she got the money to buy such a magnificent appliance. 'Oh, yes indeed,' she said. 'I just tell everybody it come to me as a gift from some dead people in California!'"
    (Gans, Not Fade Away p.89)

    It's telling, not only that Waterman didn't know or care that Cotten had only written two words of the Dead's song 'Sugaree' (though they were important words), but that once Jerry heard, he immediately picked one of her songs for a Dead album to get her a payment.

    Bob Dylan did a lovely version of 'Shake Sugaree' in 1996, by the way.

    1. Oh, for the curious - 'Shake Sugaree' was not one of the Liz Cotten songs stretching back to the early 20th century. She made it up with her great-grandkids in the '60s, recording it around 1966.

      I'm not sure how anyone would claim that there were earlier 'public-domain' versions, since I don't know of any. (Marty Robbins had done a completely different song also called 'Sugaree,' though.)

      Also by the way, it strikes me that Dylan played 'Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie' in 1997 as well. He liked Liz Cotten's work as much as Jerry did, but I suspect he did this particular song because Jerry had done it. (Jerry had also put it on his Almost Acoustic live album the year after Cotten died.)

    2. In fairness, the Dead's version is completely different song. They don't share story, lyrics or melody.

    3. I get it, but in reaction to your observation I was thinking about a book that basically took the title of another book, even if it had different content. That'd still be sketchy. Writing a song called Sugaree, with the line "shake it, shake it, Sugaree" certainly skirts that issue with a prior song called Shake Sugaree. They seem to have thought of it is a glancing homage, I guess, but the argument that these things are too similar doesn't seem crazy to me, either.

  8. it seems disrespectful that the title doesn't include her name, instead treating her as merely a part of J. Garcia's arguable greatness...

  9. She was born in Carrboro, NC, which was the black community right next to Chapel Hill.

  10. New at GDAO: Garcia's handwritten guitar tabs of several folk songs for a guitar student in the early '60s, including Freight Train & Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie:

  11. She was most likely born in 1893 (1900 census).


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