Elizabeth Cotten – Live!

Elizabeth Cotten
Live!
Image
(1983)
Arhoolie Records
LP/CD

This album has held a special place in my heart for sometime now.

Elizabeth Cotton was a fairly legendary folk and blues musician who left a large wake of influence behind her all through her long life. She picked up guitar and banjo and began writing her own songs as a child in North Carolina. Later she was hired to be a maid by the Seeger family, where, as legend goes, she taught young Peggy and Mike Seeger how to play guitar.

Cotten is also known for developing a unique left-handed picking style, which went on to be known as “Cotten picking”, which would eventually be copied and studied by guitar players (both left and right handed) the world over. Mike Seeger recorded Cotton playing her original songs and released them through Folkways Records. After this, her reputation grew further through various albums and tours over the next several decades.

Then in 1983, at the age of 85, Cotten performed a gorgeous full set of her classic compositions on an acoustic guitar and banjo, which was recorded and released here.

From start to finish, Cotten’s warmth, humor and joy is purely evident. Between (and sometimes in the middle of) songs, the enjoyment and gratitude in her voice can be heard crystal clear as Cotten tells wonderful asides and entertaining stories. This delight in her tone and the audience’s always-exuberant responses instantly put a smile on the listener’s face.  In fact, the very atmosphere of this record is one of the reasons that this is such a pleasing album.

The total respect, love and joy in that room that night positively hums within the very air on this recording and spreads out to any and all listeners.  Most of the songs feature the audience singing along, and they all do so willingly and somehow tunefully. At a few points on the record, a baby can be heard making some noises. Instead of sounding intrusive or distracting, the baby’s voice fits in perfectly with the loving atmosphere of the concert. In a way, the baby’s voice can even be seen as a symbol of the passing down of folk songs and traditions from one generation to another, which Cotten was doing that night and all of her life (especially within her own family).

For 85, Cotten’s voice, guitar and banjo playing are all in top form. Sure, her voice shows age, but it’s a gracefully ripened one that can still express all of the energy, emotion and wisdom that lies behind it. My god, are her guitar and banjo picking skills sharp.  A listen to just any one of the eleven tracks here would make anyone feel that they’re hearing the fast, exact fingers of a spry 20 year old. Does any of this go to her head? Of course not, Cotten just smiles and plays for the fun of it and for the enjoyment of those who’ve come around to watch her.

Somehow, Live! captured the intimate vibe of a back-porch family picking session. Perhaps this is due to Cotten treating the audience and all other listeners as family, a bond that most other musicians never even dream about creating. Perhaps this is why Cotten is the legend that we all know today. There’s a love in this record, and it’s incredibly catchy.

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