Jamesville, North Carolina is home to, well only 500 beautiful people, but hop on the 64 and head West about 130 miles and you’ll arrive in South Durham at the junction of Fayetteville and Riddle Roads, the historical location of Keene. Here you can take a stroll along the American Tobacco Trail, a historical tobacco transportation rail line. As you’re walking the 20 miles you may find yourself transported back in time, back to a world run by rail. To a time where you could have thrown a stone at the next competing rail line. Fortunately, the next closest competor isn’t carrying tobacco. Timbers from the New Hope River Valley traveled the line and ended up in Orange County’s little town of Chapel Hill where our story begins, January 1895.
Elizabeth Cotten didn’t necessarily have the best chance to rise to stardom, so she didn’t. She did domestic work, had a family, and raised children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. At 40-something and with a bit of serendipity she found herself changing jobs and reminiscing about her childhood sounds on another borrowed instrument. From here her musical opportunities finally began to blossom in the company of her employer, the Seegers. They were enthralled with Miss. Cotten and began recording her sounds throughout 1957 and 58 as her great grandchildren sat along her side.
At nearly 70 years old she began her touring and performances of southern folk, playing guitar and banjo right-side up and upside down. Her songs featured on the Smithsonian album, FREIGHT TRAIN AND OTHER NORTH CAROLINA FOLK SONGS AND TUNES, encapsulate this time and era that seem to have dissolved into the new southern rock and rap just as Keene dissolved into Durham. Her clean picking reminds us of a simpler time in simple music, while her singing reminds us to appreciate today’s post-production technologies, autotune, and backup do-whoppers.