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Elizabeth Cotton’s Fingerstyle Ragtime


This article omits perhaps the most unique aspect of her playing style: She plays left handed, but with a guitar strung right handed. So she plays the bass line with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. This is part of why her arrangements skip along so nicely, imo


The article explains this but the link scrolls to the third paragraph. For anyone who missed it:

> If you are a guitarist, you might notice that there is something strange about her technique. She was left-handed, but rather than stringing a guitar in reverse the way lefties usually do, she just played a standard-strung guitar upside down. She had to learn her own idiosyncratic chord shapes, and she played them by alternating bass with her fingers and playing melody notes with her thumb. This must have required some dedication! But none of it is as important as her sound and her material.


As a (right handed) guitarist I can't even imagine playing upside down guitar. It shows you that the brain can do amazing things, if you do it for long enough, and are dedicated enough. Plus she stopped playing for decades and then just went back to this like nothing was lost.


Completely different music style, of course, but Dick Dale did the same thing.


From what I know, guitars were originally designed to be played with the fingernails.

Notice on her closing stroke she simulates a right handed player's action of a guitar pick, which had become a more familiar and expected finale indicator during her lifetime.


Hi folks, I'm the author of the blog post linked above, and I got about ten times as many hits on the post as usual today, so thanks for reading!


I bookmarked this, I really like how the author dug into mostly one song. About 45 years ago I bought a good book Masters Of Instrumental Blues Guitar that had a few of her songs.

I also like Mississippi John Hurt. He was another musician who fell away from public view until his old age.


Until this year I had never been exposed to the discipline musicology, so that world is very new for me (and hence a bit exciting).

Your comment made me think that musicology is what me and my friends and many people I’ve met naturally began doing as teenagers. Nerding out on the stories of how music is made and believing those details are vitally important.

Forty years later a YouTube musician (Heinbach) mentions it’s his academic background in musicology just in passing and legitimates an ancient interest I dismissed long ago as immature.

Stumbling on Hein was revelatory for me too.


> What does the phrase “shake sugaree” mean, though? [...] The Grateful Dead’s song “Sugaree” references the phrase, but that isn’t very enlightening, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were Elizabeth Cotten fans and just thought it sounded cool. I learned from Google that the Sugaree were a Native American tribe in the Carolinas; maybe the song references a dance of theirs? The annotated Robert Hunter lyric book says that Elizabeth Cotten was actually referring to the tradition of shivaree, but gives no explanation as to why she would call it “sugaree.” If someone can enlighten me, please do.

I have had the exact same question for a while now. If anybody here has an idea, it would really make my day :)


From Robert Hunter's liner notes for the re-issue of "Garcia" in the box set "All Good Things":

"Sugaree was written soon after I moved from the Garcia household to China Camp. People assume the idea was cadged from Elizabeth Cotten's Sugaree, but, in fact, the song was originally titled 'Stingaree,' which is a poisonous South Sea manta. The phrase 'just don't tell them that you know me' was prompted by something said by an associate in my pre-Dead days when my destitute circumstances found me fraternizing with a gang of minor criminals. What he said, when departing, was: 'Hold your mud and don't mention my name.'

"Why change the title to 'Sugaree'? Just thought it sounded better that way, made the addressee seem more hard-bitten to bear a sugar-coated name. The song, as I imagined it, is addressed to a pimp. And yes, I knew Libba's song, and did indeed borrow the new name from her, suggested by the 'Shake it' refrain."


I note the song also mentions "raising cain" (edited to fix autocorrect error), another obscure idiom for "causing a fuss", "making a ruckus".

But generally it's common for things passed down in an oral tradition to get respelled at some point down the chain.

Examples from music include Jock-o-mo in the song Iko Iko, where someone heard a word in a language they didn't know, then sang it and someone else wrote it down in a different way.


I always thought it was “raising Cain”, as in the biblical figure who killed his brother Abel.

A quick google suggests that’s right, and the “raising” is in the sense of “summoning”, which makes sense - summoning the spirit of a famous murderer!


It is raining Cain, I got autocorrected.

Used similarly to:

"raising hell".




May the inventor of autospell burn in hello.


This immediately jumped out me because I'm familiar with Cotten.

I had a book on finger-style folk guitar in the 1980's, that I learned a thing or two from. Cotten's "Freight Train" was featured in it, along with some notes about her, and a note about her left-handed use of regular guitar strung right handed, so that her thumb was actually playing the high strings.

About a year ago, a funny thing happened. My then two-and-a-half year old wanted to hear some music so I somehow found a YouTube video of Cotten and put that on. He started crying that he wants rock and roll!

I was thinking, man, kid's gonna have to learn some respect; but chip off the old block otherwise.


Hate the sin and love the winner


Covered this song at many a gig, I feel I've got most of it down, but not playing the guitar upside down as she did, it will never be the same. Love this song.




She stopped playing guitar for years when she joined a church and they told her to stop playing ragtime.


Probably just stopped playing secular music. My great-grandfather was a bluesman in the 20s and 30s until he became more churchy, too, but afterwards he played guitar in the church and played religious songs.


Thomas Dorsey started out playing pretty raunchy blues and later helped create/popularize gospel music, so that’s a well-trodden path.


Wow, and playing it lefty.


Not just normal lefty: she's playing a regular "right handed" guitar, flipped around. Note how the thin strings are on top and the heavy strings on the bottom.




Her and Sister Tharpe are two of my favorites. Hope their legacy persists.