Elizabeth Cotten was born on 05/01/1893 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her birth name was Elizabeth Nevills. She was the youngest of five children. At the age of seven, she began to play her older brother's banjo. By the age of eight, she was playing songs. When she was 11 she made enough money from working as a domestic helper to buy her own guitar. She was self-taught but became proficient. By her early teens, she had started writing her own songs, the most recognised of which was the song "Freight Train". The song was about a train that could be heard from her childhood home. When she was about 13 she worked as a maid alongside her mother.
On 07/11/1910, at the age of 17, she married Frank Cotten. They had a daughter called Lillie and Elizabeth gave up guitar playing for family and church. The family moved around the eastern USA for a while between North Carolina, New York City and Washington D.C where they would finally settle. When Lillie married, Elizabeth divorced Frank and went to live with her and her family.
Cotten did not start to perform publicly (apart from occasional church performances) until she was in her 60s. She was discovered whilst working as a housekeeper for the folk-singing Seeger family.
In the late 1950s, Mike Seeger made bedroom reel to reel recordings of Cotten's songs in her house. The recordings were released as the album "Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar" by Folkways Records.
Cotten would then begin playing concerts with Mike Seeger. The first concert was at Swarthmore College in 1960. The folk revival of the 1960s saw Cotten play concerts with some big names. These included Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters at venues such as the Newport Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife.
In 1967 she released the album "Shake Sugaree" which was recorded with her grandchildren.
Cotten, her daughter and granddaughter bought a house in Syracuse, New York. She would continue to tour and release records into her 80s.
In 1984 she won the Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, for the album "Elizabeth Cotten Live".
In 1989, Cotten was one of 75 influential African-American women included in the photo documentary "I Dream a World".
In June 1987 Cotten died at Crouse-Irving Hospital in Syracuse, New York.
Her songs have been covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Devendra Banhart, Laura Gibson, Laura Veirs, His Name Is Alive, Doc Watson, Taj Mahal and Geoff Farina.