Women In Folk: Elizabeth Cotten


Elizabeth Cotten is one of the first women artists in folk music. She is best known for her popular song “Freight Train,”  which was famously sampled by Peggy Seeger of the legendary Seeger folk family. Cotten built cemented her legacy through her songwriting and iconic playing of the guitar and banjo with her left hand, paving the way for legendary artists like Jimmy Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

Elizabeth Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the year of  1893. At the age of 7, she taught herself how to play the banjo and guitar during a time where it was forbidden. Her unique style of playing stemmed from her method of flipping the instruments to be able to play left handed and the melody she created. The sound was eventually penned as “Cotten Style”.

A Dream Deffered

Cotten worked to help support her family, most of it including domestic work for the Seeger family. The Seeger family was composed of a famous composer at the time and a pioneer of ethnomusicology.  After many years working for the family, Cotten was one day discoverd for her amazing guitar playing skills. 

The patriarch of the Seeger’s began to record the work of Cotten which resulted in her performing small concerts to some of societies’ elite.  At the age of 62, Cotten recorded her first album, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes. It is notably one of the few authentic folk-music albums available by the early 1960s, and eventually became one of the most influential.


Elizabeth Cotten won many awards and recognitions throughout her career, even though her peak started late in her life. She was awarded the National Folk 1972 Burl Ives Award for her contribution to American folk music at the age of 79, a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, and recognition by the Smithsonian Institution as a “living treasure” and a “master of folk music”.  At the age of 90, she won the Grammy for the Best ethnic or traditional folk recording.

Cotten’s influence is still prevalent on modern folk music with artists like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead popularly covering her songs. 

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