Folk music legend Pete Seeger is someone you probably remember, but did you know that one of his musical influences might have been his ‘almost’ nanny? Although Pete was pretty much on his own by then and housekeeper Elizabeth Cotten wasn’t exactly Mary Poppins, she did take care of his younger step-siblings while attending to her other domestic duties, and the whole Seeger family — including Pete — encouraged and embraced her late-life musical career.
Born as Elizabeth Nevills in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1895, her upbringing was typical of the period, and she was working as a domestic by the age of 12. However, she’d also found music by then, first by picking at a banjo and then moving on to her brother’s guitar, which she taught herself to play in an unusual way. She was left-handed, so had to hold the instrument upside-down, which meant she played bass with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. (Most left-handers just re-string the guitar, but her unusual style would later become known as Cotten pickin’.)
By her late teens, Elizabeth had married Frank Cotten and given birth to a daughter, and it was about then that she put music aside and began devoting herself to her family and church. Still working as a domestic, she stayed with her rambling husband for the next couple of decades, relocating at one time or another to New York and Washington, but when her daughter grew up and married, Elizabeth divorced him and went to live with her.
By the 1940s she was working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family, which had a long tradition of musical — and social — activism. (Pete’s father, mother, step-mother, and most of his siblings were involved in both activities throughout their lives.) With their encouragement, Elizabeth again began playing guitar, and even though she’d missed decades of practice she eventually regained her skill. By the late 1950s she was ready to go public, and her groundbreaking album established her as a performer, and as as composer too. One of the cuts was a song she’d written as a girl — “Freight Train” — and it would become a country standard.
Even though she continued with her housekeeping duties for a while, Elizabeth gradually became more comfortable performing in public, and as her fame grew she eventually retired from her previous work and devoted most of her time to entertaining her many fans. She even grew relaxed enough on stage to tell stories of her childhood. A Grammy winner and the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, she was 92 when she died in 1987.