Elizabeth Cotten is one of the most innovative guitarists in American music history. She was self-taught and developed a distinctive left-handed style in which she held the guitar upside down so that she played the melody with her thumb and the bass primarily with her pointer finger. That positioning led her to a characteristic finger-picking technique that countless guitarists have tried to imitate and replicate.
Cotten recorded a number of studio albums, many of which have been reissued by Smithsonian Folkways, but her brilliance as a composer, picker and performer are most on display in her live recordings. After digging through our own archives in the Paste Cloud and scouring the internet, here are eight live performances that celebrate Elizabeth Cotten’s humor, grace and utter technical mastery.
This golden performance of the gospel standard is both visually and sonically gorgeous. This is also one of the best videos for guitarists interested in learning how to play like Cotten because the camera alternates close-ups of each hand, giving a first-hand view of her outstanding technique.
This precious live recording from 1976 is of one of Cotten’s loveliest compositions. It’s become a one-of-a-kind document thanks to some give-and-take chatter with her audience that showcases her easy rapport and doesn’t derail her magnificent picking.
Taken from the same 1976 concert as “Wilson Rag,” Cotten delivers a classic take on this folk standard (which many know from the Woody Guthrie version). She leads the audience in singing, often relinquishing the vocal duties fully. The effect here is communal, nearly sacramental, as her ever-sturdy guitar becomes a bandleader for the crowd. Pete Seeger made use of this same performance technique in his later years.
Cotten’s finger-style of playing thrives in open-tuning songs and “Vestapol” is one of her best performances, complete with aching string bends. Watch her pointer finger on this tune as she holds down the bass line, a mark of her legendary left-handed method of playing the guitar upside down that went on to influence artists like Leo Kottke and John Fahey.
Cotten is affiliated with folk and blues, but some of her best guitar compositions would be better described as ragtime. In particuar, “Washington Blues” and “I’m Going Away” are two of the very best of her rags—sturdy mid-tempo janglers with melodies for the ages.
This video shows off Cotten’s versatility as a picker, especially on the fandango-inspired triplets that she seamlessly weaves into the melody. The interview portion of this video between the two songs is also notable for capturing Cotten’s off-the-cuff charm, far more comfortable speaking through her instrument than mere words.
More than any other live recording, this video captures Cotten’s sense of humor and her gift as a storyteller during the introduction to one of her best, most timeless songs. (For another great example, check out “Three Fools Story” on Paste Cloud). We can sense her appreciation and for the audience, too, as Cotten leads them in a sing-along, cultivating a feeling of participation and community that is at the heart of folk music.
Cotten’s signature tune has become a folk standard that countless guitarists have covered. Incredibly, she wrote the song when she was just 11 years old! Cotten played this tune throughout her entire musical life, and you can tell by listening to this stunning late version. Her voice cracks and breaks, exposing years of weathering, and amplifies the song’s lyrical theme of being laid to rest near the tracks where that train just keeps rolling by.