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Monday, 26 July 2010

Elizabeth Cotton’s Banjo

By Jerry Rasmussen who blogs at Thoughts on Faith

Back in the 60s when Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary were playing for crowds of thousands and folk music had broken into the top 40, there was a smaller, quieter revival going on that passed almost unnoticed. The old musicians who had shaped the music for most of their lives were being rediscovered.

They didn’t play large auditoriums or large festivals. Most of them were playing in small clubs with even smaller crowds. One of those musicians was Elizabeth Cotton.

Many years ago, Elizabeth was a maid for the Seeger family and taught Pete, Mike and their sister Peggy how to finger pick guitar. They in turn passed her songs and guitar style on to countless young pickers and her song, Freight Train, became standard fair for folk musicians around the world.

When I heard that Elizabeth Cotton was going to be playing at the Pickin' Parlor in New Haven, I jumped at the chance to hear her. The Pickin’ Parlor was run by Harry Guffee and his wife Ruth. Ruth had a doctorate in Russian literature and she and Harry were both musicians. Harry looked a little bit like Tom Selleck, and he and Ruth both wore cowboy hats.

The Pickin’ Parlor was in a run-down building in a run-down neighborhood. Both had seen their better days. When you walked inside and your eyes adjusted to the dim lighting you could make out a small stage on one side of the room with a few mismatched folding chairs randomly scattered around it.

The walls were lined with old instruments and an occasional display case, and old photos and posters. After Harry’s warm introduction, he reached down and gave her a hand up the stairs onto the stage.

Elizabeth shuffled across the stage and eased herself down into a small chair. When she greeted the audience and thanked them for coming, it was as if she’d just invited us into her living room.

She was in her early nineties then and was at the end of the line as a performer. She had a very modest, off-handed way of speaking and there was an intimacy that night because the crowd was small. Certainly, the crowd was no measure of what a national treasure she was.

As Elizabeth was softly introducing her songs, she told a story about when she was a little girl. Her older brother had a banjo and she couldn't resist trying to play it. She had no idea what to do with the banjo but she loved to hold it and she'd keep tuning the strings up until one of them would break from the tension.

She knew she was in trouble when that happened, so she'd put the banjo back where her brother kept it hidden from her but when he came, he'd check the banjo and when he found a string was broken again, he knew who'd done it. And she caught hell.

She wasn't explicit about the terms of that hell, but whatever it was, it didn't stop her from finding where her brother had hidden the banjo. When he'd go out, she'd go find the banjo, try to tune it up and break a string once again.

She told the story with a wistfulness in her voice and said softly that she'd always wanted to have a banjo, but never had one. She was near the end of her life and the crowd was small. I don't know how far she traveled to be there, but it must have been sad to see that so few people seemed to remember her. She probably felt a little forgotten already.

As we were sitting there, transfixed by the story, Harry got up and walked over to the wall next to the stage. Without hesitation, he reached up and carefully lifted down a banjo that was hanging there. He quietly walked over to Elizabeth and handed her the banjo, saying, "Now you've got a banjo of your own."

I don't remember what the banjo looked like, and I don't remember exactly what Elizabeth said, or Harry either, for that matter. The words aren't important. It was the love that Harry, his wife and every one of us had for Elizabeth that still remains. And I thought of one of the old hymns she sang.

I shall have a crown to wear when I get home
I shall have a crown to wear when I get home
On the road to glory, I shall tell a story
The Lord will be with me when I get home

I know she’ll be carrying that banjo.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Jerry, what an absolutely beautiful story. Thank you for adding your gift to those of Harry and Elizabeth.

A lovely story, Jerry. Thank you. A national treasure,as is her protege, Pete. At least, at 90, he is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

I love this story, Jerry. Thanks.

A beautiful touching story. Thank you.

Hope I get to sit beside Elizabeth and her banjo. Thank you, Jerry.

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