It sadly comes as no surprise that countless pioneering female musicians, especially black women, have had their impacts on popular music routinely ignored. From Big Mama Thorton to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who were known for their innovative guitar-playing skills, many black women played a significant role in the development of rock and roll. Elizabeth Cotten was a black female artist who aided the progression of folk music, yet, to this day, she rarely receives the credit she deserves for her contributions to the genre.
Born in 1893, Cotten found herself working domestic jobs when she was still a child. She would play her brother’s guitar in her spare time, flipping it upside down to suit her left-handedness. Subsequently, she played the guitar in an unconventional style, which eventually became her strength. However, Cotten wanted her own guitar, so she saved up and bought one. Throughout her teenage years, Cotten would compose songs, including ‘Freight Train’ (potentially written as far back as 1906), which would become popular in the 1950s and 1960s.
Cotten stopped playing music for several decades, focusing on family, work and church. While employed at a department store, she met the Seeger family, which included future folk artists Peggy and Mike Seeger. The family employed her to help with childcare, cooking and cleaning before quickly discovering that she could play the guitar.
According to Peggy (via NPR), “When I was about 15, I walked into the kitchen, and I saw her playing the guitar that was hanging on the wall. And she was playing ‘Freight Train.’ Then she started trotting out songs. She knew a lot of songs. We would have been happy to do the cooking and cleaning if she would just play!”
Impressed with Cotten’s composition, when the young folk musician went to England in the 1950s, she began to play it for anyone who would listen. She taught the song to other musicians, including those in the flourishing skiffle movement, yet, her attempts to spread Cotten’s work partly backfired when other (white) artists began to take credit for it.
When the Chas McDevitt group released the track in 1957, they copyrighted it under their own names – Cotten’s credit was nowhere to be seen. As many artists began to play the song, making it a popular folk tune, Cotten eventually realised she had to take legal action. When the issue was settled out of court, Cotten only received a tiny percentage of royalties, being forced to share credit with Chas McDevitt and Bill Varley. ‘Freight Train’ predated these men’s existences, and still, to this day, the song is frequently miscredited, with Cotten’s musical contributions forgotten.
In 1958, Cotten released recordings of her music, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, with the help of Mike Seeger. She even began performing with him, appearing at gigs such as the legendary Newport Folk Festival. Cotten loved performing and constantly played songs for her relatives, resulting in ‘Shake Sugaree’, which featured vocals by her 12-year-old great-grandchild, Brenda Evans. Yet again, Cotten faced issues when Fred Neil claimed a co-credit when he performed an arrangement of the song under a new name, leading several cover versions to only credit Neil.
Cotten’s struggle to be recognised for her pioneering guitar playing is intrinsically linked to her position as a black woman. White men frequently took credit for her work, and even when Cotten set out to reclaim her influence, she still struggled to receive adequate visibility and respect. Luckily, the music world began to recognise her monumental impact in the 1970s and 1980s, when she won the Burl Ives Award and a Grammy for ‘Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording’. In 2022, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, cited as a significant early influence on music.
Unfortunately, plenty of people are still unaware of Cotten’s music or her mammoth impact on the development of folk music, which simultaneously influenced the progression of rock and popular music. Cotten was a folk master whose influence helped to boost the careers of emerging folk legends such as Peter Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, who frequently covered ‘Freight Train’.
Watch a rare live performance of Cotten playing a tender rendition of the song.