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.
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.
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.
The first single that was to be released for this album was the song I wrote and composed, Rosetta. Fate intervened when Georgie Fame and Alan Price released it first and scored a big hit with it. You can hear their version here: Rosetta
I just watched a showing of ‘20 Feet From Stardom’ the much praised documentary, and rightly so, which puts the spotlight on the whole sub-culture of female background singers. It was wonderful to see Claudia Linnear and Mary (Merry) Clayton still alive and well, along with so many other of the legendary voices, but I wish they’d have touched on Doris Troy’s amazing contribution, especially when those girls came to the U.K., where Doris was both fixing agent and den mother to those ladies, along with Rosetta Hightower, Madeline Bell, Barry St. John and Liza Strike. It was always a great thrill to get the call to provide one of the male voices on so many of those sessions…and in retrospect, a great honor too. Viva Las Divas!
This is a rare performance shot of Ferris Wheel while performing at the Black Bird in Geneva, Switzerland (click pic see street view of area today). Linda Lewis is singing with Dave Sweetnam-Ford and Michael Snow is behind the Hammond.Read more about Ferris Wheel & Black Bird in Mersey Me! A Liverpool Lad On The Loose In The Swingin’ 60s (Amazon or Barnes and Noble).
ALBATROSS – FLEETWOOD MAC
ANTS MARCHING – DAVE MATTHEWS BAND
APPALOOSA – GINO VANELLI
BEARCAT – RUFUS THOMAS
BLUEBIRDS OVER THE MOUNTAIN – BEACH BOYS
BOA CONSTRICTOR – JOHNNY CASH
BOLL WEEVIL – BROOK BENTON
BULLFROG BLUES – CANNED HEAT
CHESTNUT MARE – THE BYRDS
CRAWFISH – ELVIS PRESLEY
CRAWLIN’ KING SNAKE – GEORGE THOROGOOD & THE DESTROYERS
DEAD SKUNK – LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
THE DUCK – JACKIE LEE
EAGLE AND THE HAWK – JOHN DENVER
HOUND DOG – BIG MAMA THORNTON
THE LION SLEEPS TONIGHT – THE TOKENS
LITTLE RED ROOSTER – THE ROLLING STONES
(Tie me) KANGAROO DOWN SPORT – ROLF HARRIS
KENTUCKY BLUEBIRD – LOU JOHNSON
MOCKINGBIRD – CHARLIE& INEZ FOXX
THE MONKEY SPEAKS HIS MIND – DAVE BARTHOLEMEW
NIGHTINGALES – PREFAB SPROUT
PRETTY FLAMINGO – MANFRED MANN
RATTLESNAKE – OHIO PLAYERS
ROCK LOBSTER – B-52’S
SNOWBIRD – ANNE MURRAY
SPIDERS AND SNAKES – JIM STAFFORD
TICKS – BRAD PAISLEY
THE UNICORN – THE IRISH ROVERS