Maybelle Carter by JOtwell

From The Desk… Something in the Way They Play: Legendary Female Guitarists Part 1

The guitar didn’t begin its ascendancy to being the most popular of popular instruments until the mid-1920s, and picked up momentum in the ‘30s with the advent of the electric guitar.

Women had been playing parlor guitars since the late 1800s and the image of the female folk singer earnestly strumming away became iconic from the 50s onward. With the development of electric instruments, it seemed that women were not as accepted playing the electric axe, with its inherent bluster, as they were playing its more muted relation.

In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, two significant and innovative women emerged from the rural south with acoustic instrumental techniques that would influence generations:  Elizabeth Cotten and Mother Maybelle Carter.

Born Elizabeth Neville, in Carrboro, North Carolina, into a musical family, Elizabeth Cotten was left‑handed and translated her early musical leanings by flipping her brother’s banjo without reversing the strings, a method she then transferred to her first guitar (all of which occurred before Jimi Hendrix was even the faintest glint in his father’s eye). By age thirteen she had already composed the iconic Freight Train, with the signature finger-picking technique that became known as “Cotten-Pickin’”.  Elizabeth eventually drifted into the obscurity of the southern black experience until she was more than 60 years old and working as a housekeeper with the noted Seegar family, of folk music fame, who brought her to well‑deserved attention later in her life.

Elizabeth Cotten by JOtwell
Elizabeth Cotten by JOtwell

In 1967, she recorded an acclaimed album of self-composed children’s songs, Shake Sugaree, and won a Grammy in 1984 for best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Elizabeth Cotten Live (Arhoolie Records).  She died at the age of 94.

Maybelle Carter, nee Addington, a Virginian by birth, first came to attention in the 1920s as one-third of The Carter Family with her brother-in-law A.P.Carter and his wife Sara, who, being Maybelle’s cousin, kept it in the family in true Appalachian fashion. The Carter Family is rightly celebrated as a cornerstone of the Folk revival, an essential building block of what became country music. Crucial to The Carter Family sound was Maybelle’s innovative and unique guitar style, which became known as the “Carter Scratch”.  In common with Ms. Cotten’s eponymous style, it involved counterpoint in the bass and strumming or picking of the higher strings, a technique later brought to perfection by Chet Atkins (who logged time with The Carter Family in his early career). Even in lesser hands the style became a ubiquitous, indispensable part of guitar technique.

Maybelle Carter by JOtwell
Maybelle Carter by JOtwell

By the 1950s, Maybelle Carter had become the matriarchal figure “Mother Maybelle,” although still only in her forties. She, together with her extended family, including Johnny Cash, who married her daughter June and two other daughters, Helen and Anita, all contributed to “The First Family Of Country Music.”  She remained active in both studio and concert, continuing to showcase her expertise with autoharp and banjo, in addition to her vastly influential guitar playing.  She died at age 69 in 1978.

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