Not long ago, a song showed up on one of my Spotify playlists — the ones based on previous songs you’ve listened to — and something about it caught my ear. I listen to a lot of old folk songs, but this one sounded even older than usual, like turn-of-the-century even. It also used a term I had never heard before, with the singer saying “Oh lordie me, didn’t I shake sugaree.” I looked up the artist, and the guitar part was played by a woman named Elizabeth Cotten, a fascinating folk and blues singer who was born in the late 1800s. The singer, Brenda Evans, turns out to be Cotten’s great-grandaughter, who was only 12 when the song was recorded in 1967.
Elizabeth was born to a poor family in North Carolina, near Chapel Hill, and had to leave school at the age of nine to work as a maid. She earned a dollar a month, and when she was 12, her mother bought her a guitar at Sears & Roebuck for $3.75 (about $100 in current dollars). She was left-handed, but the guitar was strung for a right-handed player, so she just learned to play it upside down, using her fingers for the bass line and her thumb for the melody — a style that became known as “Cotten picking.”
A “shake sugaree,” it turns out, is a term for a dance party where sugar would be sprinkled on the floor, so that dance steps would create a percussion sound (although there are other theories about the term; unfortunately Cotten never said what exactly the song was referring to ). Cotten wrote a number of songs in her teens, around the turn of the century, including another she is well known for, called “Freight Train.” But at 17, she was married, and gave up music to raise a family. She didn’t play again for more than a quarter of a century, and didn’t record or play in public until she was in her 60s.
In the 1950s, while working in a department store, she helped a child who was wandering through the aisles find her mother. The child was Peggy Seeger, and the mother was the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Cotten started working for the Seegers as a maid, and as a nanny for the children. Being around such a musical family (Peggy’s half-brother was Pete Seeger, who became a famous folk singer), Cotten started playing the guitar again and the family recorded her songs for a folk album.
Peggy Seeger, also a folk musician, took the song “Freight Train” with her to England, where it became popular in folk circles. British songwriters Paul James and Fred Williams subsequently misappropriated it as their own composition and copyrighted it, and it was recorded by a number of artists and was a radio hit. The Seeger family eventually fought to have the copyright restored to Cotten, who went on to play concerts with musicians such as Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters.