Cotten was born in Carrboro, North Carolina to a musical family; her parents were George Nevills and Louise Price Nevills. Elizabeth was the youngest of five children. She began writing music while toying around with her older siblings instruments, sometimes having to sneak into her older brother's room to lay the hidden guitar across her lap and play. After more tinkering with these instruments she began playing the guitar upside down, since she was left-handed. This position required her to play the bass lines with her fingers, and the melody with her thumb. Her signature, alternating bass style is known as "cotton picking".
Watch Elizabeth Cotton perform in streaming RealVideo, free from guitarvideos.com By age 8 she was playing songs, and after scraping together some money she bought her own guitar, which she named "Stella".
She possessed the remarkable ability to play a song exactly after hearing it only once. By her early teens she was writing her own songs, one of which, "Freight Train", would go on to be one of her most recognized.
Around the age of 13 she began working as a maid along with her mother. Soon after at age 15 she was married to Frank Cotten. The couple had a daughter together named Lillie, and soon after young Elizabeth gave up guitar playing for family life and church. Elizabeth, Frank and their daughter Lillie moved around eastern United States for a number of years between North Carolina, New York, and Washington D.C., finally settling in the D.C. area.
When Lillie married, Elizabeth divorced Frank and moved in with her daughter and her family.
Elizabeth had retired from the guitar for twenty-five years, except for occasional church performances when. It wasn't until she reached her sixties that she began recording and performing publicly. She was discovered by the folk-singing Seeger family while she was working for them as a housekeeper.
While working for a brief stint in a department store, Elizabeth helped a child wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Peggy Seeger and the mother was Ruth Crawford Seeger of the Charles Seeger Family. Soon after this Elizabeth again began working as a maid, caring for the Seeger's children Mike, Pete, and Peggy. While working with the Seegers (a voraciously musical family) she remembered her own guitar playing from forty years prior, and picked up the instrument again to start from scratch.
It is not clear whether Elizabeth developed her distinctive style when she was a child or later when she began playing again. Regardless, her unmistakably original chords, melodies and finger picking techniques would go on to influence many other musicians.
During the later half of the fifties Mike Seeger began making bedroom reel to reel recordings of her songs in Elizabeth's house. The culmination of these recordings would later go on Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, which was released on Folkways Records. This album is considered one of the most influential folk albums ever recorded. Since its release, her songs, especially her signature track, "Freight Train," written when she was 11, have been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal. Shortly afterwards she began playing selected joint shows with Mike Seeger, the first of which was in 1960 at Swarthmore College. One of her songs, "Ain't Got No Honey Baby Now," was in fact recorded by Blind Boy Fuller under the title "Lost Lover Blues" in 1940.
Over the course of the early sixties Elizabeth went on to play more shows with big names in the burgeoning sixties folk revival. Some of these included Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.
The newfound interest in her work inspired her to write more material to play and in 1967 she released a record created with her grandchildren entitled Shake Sugaree.
Using profits from her touring and record releases, as well as a slew of awards given to her for contribution to the folk arts, Elizabeth moved with her daughter and grandchildren from Washington and bought a house in Syracuse, New York. She continued touring and releasing records well into her 80's. In 1984 she won the Grammy Award for "Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording" for her album on Arhoolie Records "Elizabeth Cotten Live." In 1989, Cotten was one of 75 influential African-American women chosen to be included in the photo documentary, "I Dream a World." When accepting the award on the Grammy stage in Los Angeles, her comment was "Thank you. I only wish I had my guitar so I could play a song for you all".
Elizabeth Cotten died in Syracuse, New York at the age of 92. Her influence is felt by many guitarists today.