Elizabeth Cotten: A left handed guitarist

By Miche Archetto:

Elizabeth Cotten was left handed, and started playing guitar upside-down, resulting in a very original style.

In this video she plays “Spanish Flang Dang” and “A Jig”. The video was recorded on the “Guitar, Guitar” TV show in 1969.

Here is her bio from wikipedia 

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (January 5, 1893 – June 29, 1987) was an American blues and folk musician, singer, and songwriter.

A self-taught left-handed guitarist, Cotten developed her own original style. Her approach involved using a right-handed guitar (usually in standard tuning), not re-strung for left-handed playing, essentially, holding a right-handed guitar upside down. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. Her signature alternating bass style has become known as “Cotten picking”.

Elizabeth Nevills was born in Carrboro, North Carolina, at the border of Chapel Hill, to a musical family. Her parents were George Nevills and Louise Price Nevills. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. At age seven, Cotten began to play her older brother’s banjo. By eight years old, she was playing songs. At the age of 11, after scraping together some money as a domestic helper, she bought her own guitar. Although self-taught, she became very good at playing the instrument. By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, Freight Train, became one of her most recognized. Cotten wrote Freight Train when she saw a train pass by her house on Lloyd Street in Carrboro, North Carolina.

Around the age of 13, Cotten began working as a maid along with her mother. Soon after the age of 15, she married Frank Cotten. The couple had a daughter named Lillie, and soon after young Elizabeth gave up guitar playing for family and church. Elizabeth, Frank and their daughter Lillie moved around the eastern United States for a number of years between North Carolina, New York, and Washington, D.C., finally settling in the D.C. area. When Lillie married, Elizabeth divorced Frank and moved in with her daughter and her family.


Cotten had retired from the guitar for 25 years, except for occasional church performances. She didn’t begin performing publicly and recording until she was in her 60s. She was discovered by the folk-singing Seeger family while she was working for them as a housekeeper.

While working briefly in a department store, Cotten helped a child wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Penny Seeger, and the mother was composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Soon after this, Elizabeth again began working as a maid, caring for Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger’s children, Mike, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny. While working with the Seegers (a voraciously musical family) she remembered her own guitar playing from 40 years prior and picked up the instrument again to relearn almost from scratch.” read more





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