Upside Down Left-handed Guitar

Elizabeth Cotten is known for beginning a singing and songwriting career late in life and for playing left-handed, upside down guitar.

5/1/20232 min read

The Upside Down Left-handed Guitar of Elizabeth Cotten

Who Was Elizabeth Cotten?

Elizabeth Cotton was a North Carolina domestic, who had a great resurgence in her musical career after she turned 60. She was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1893 and while still a teenager, wrote several songs, one of which was the much venerated, Freight Train. Except for an occasional church appearance, Elizabeth would leave her fledgling music career behind and take employment as a domestic.

Elizabeth Cotten after restarting her singing career.

This situation lasted until the fifties, when by chance, the sixty year old woman found herself employed with the Seeger family of North Carolina as a maid. By some twist of fate, Miss Cotten just happened to be gainfully employed by Ruth and Charles Seeger, who were both active as music teachers, composers and all around musicologists. Charles went on to record Elizabeth in his own home on reel to reel tape. This music would later be released as Miss Cotten's first vinyl recording. Her recorded music was so successful were so successful that the performing career of the Carolina prodigy took off after the 1958 debut of the first album, Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar.

Following is a clip of Elizabeth performing Freight Train, one of her most popular and most recorded songs. Keep in mind this song was originally written back in 1909, when Miss Cotten was just sixteen years old. Amazingly, the tune still sounds fresh.


In the early 70s, Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter collaborated to write one of their classics, a song they called "Sugaree". Though the title (song titles cannot be copyrighted) is freely taken from Cotten's tune, Shake Sugaree, the lyrics and melody are pure Gratefulful Dead. I have included a live performance of this Dead classic, just to give some perspective on that era when both the Dead and Cotten were active. The Dead version is included below, so you can compare it to the Rihannon Giddens version at the top of the page, which is pure Cotten.

Rihannon Giddens sings one of Elizabeth Cotten's most cherished songs, Shake Sugaree.