Elizabeth Cotton's Banjo
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Elizabeth Cotton’s Banjo
My memory is fading on this one. Maybe some details will come back as I'm typing it. The heart of the story is still fresh in my mind, though.
Elizabeth Cotton was performing at the Pickin' Parlor in New Haven. And now I remember that the guy who ran the club was Harry Guffee. His wife Ruth had a Doctorate in Russian Literature from what I remember, and they were both musicians. Harry Looked a little bit like Tom Selleck and wore a cowboy hat, as did his wife, often.
It was a slow night at the Pickin' Parlor. The few times I went there, it was slow except for an open mike night where I sang once. Barry Sandler of Green Beret fame was there with his manager and his manager approached me after I'd done my couple of songs, handed me his business card and said he'd like to get some of my songs. I never followed through on it. Maybe Barry could have recorded one.
But back to Elizabeth. Many long years ago, she had been a maid for the Seeger family and had taught Pete, Mike and their sister Peggy how to finger pick guitar. It was one of those gifts that keep on giving, as her songs and guitar style was passed on to countless young pickers and her song Freight Train had become standard fair for folk musicians around the world.
The Pickin' Parlor was a dark, funky looking place with a small stage on one side of the room. Elizabeth was sitting up there on the stage, hunched over her guitar. She was in her early nineties then, I seem to remember, 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. Not much more than a handful of us gathered around the stage sitting in old folding chairs. 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'd hid 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. There were instruments hung up on the walls, all around the room that he had for sale. 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. But I remember the love in that room at that moment. The words aren't important. It was the reverence and love that Harry, his wife and every one of us had for Elizabeth that still remains.
“Praise him with stringed instruments”
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Thank you for sharing your memories and the final act of love and grace, when Harry gave Elizabeth the banjo for her own.
AWWWWWWWWWWWWWW Ilove this story and so glad he gave it to her. I have always loved the older generation, even as a child. I always wanted to hear their stories and hear about their life. Great article !
It is always a pleasure to go down memory lane, isn't it. Thank you for sharing this story. GOD BLESS YOU