Cotten is known today as one of America’s most respected folk musicians, but it was a long road for her to get there.
Born in 1895 as the granddaughter of freed slaves, Cotten’s talents didn’t become known to the world until she was a grandmother in her 60s. She married Frank Cotten at age 15 and gave birth to a daughter — a life that left her without much time to pursue music.
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Her unique style of finger-picking the acoustic guitar left-handed didn’t become known to a wider audience until much later. That path was kick-started after her employers, the Seegar family, witnessed her abilities.
Cotten and Mike Seeger played a joint concert in 1959, marking the first professional job for both of them, and she began recording for Folkways Records. Among her more famous numbers are “Shake, Sugaree,” a song that was covered by Bob Dylan, and “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” which was admired and recorded by the Grateful Dead.
In 1978, Cotten moved to Syracuse, N.Y., where she was named the city’s first “Living Treasure.” The artist, who as a child wrote the mature lyrics, “When I die, oh bury me deep / Down at the end of old Chestnut Street / So I can hear old Number Nine /As she comes rolling by,” continued performing until a month before her death in 1987.
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