Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Elizabeth Cotton. Connections, eh?

In this photo you will see that Elizabeth Cotton (1893-1987) was a left-handed guitarist. Turning her guitar upside-down, she developed a peculiar picking style.

Elizabeth Cotton was nanny to the Seeger family, looking after Peter and Peggy and Mike and Barbara and Penny.

(Thanks to reader Mike Regenstreif for pointing out that Pete was an adult when, in the late 1940s, Elizabeth entered the Seeger household.)

Cotton worked for the Seeger family for a few years before they discovered she could play guitar. The mother, Ruth Porter Crawford Seeger, provided musical notation for "Those Gambler's Blues" - aka SJI  - in Carl Sandburg's 1927 American Songbag.

At the age of 11 Elizabeth wrote "Freight Train:"

Freight train freight train run so fast
Freight train freight train run so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
They won't know what route I'm goin"


At 74 she recorded "Shake Sugaree," giving the vocal part to her 12 year-old great grandchild, Brenda Joyce Evans.

Oh lordy me don't I  shake sugaree?
Everything I got is done and pawned.

Here's a version she recorded herself



"Shake Sugaree" was featured on Bob Dylan's radio show (episode 93).

Rhiannon Giddens recorded it in 2015 .





Time marches on. And "Shake Sugaree," unfortunately, has not lost its relevance.

Another interpretation: writer, biographer and friend of Dave Van Ronk (etc.!), Elijah Wald:
https://www.elijahwald.com/songblog/shake-sugaree/

Have fun.