By Stanley Okumura
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Last week, local musician, artist, and filmmaker Brianna Pruett followed a documentary lead fostered over the last two years and interviewed the singer of famed folk song “Shake Sugaree,” Brenda Evans.
The granddaughter of Elizabeth Cotten – an African-American folk singer popularized by Mike Seeger (brother of Pete Seeger) in the mid-’60 folk revival – Evans runs a small boutique in Occoquan, Va., a suburb just outside of Washington, D.C. Cotton played guitar left-handed.
Evans reminisced about performing with her grandmother at such events as the Newport Folk Festival in front of thousands of fans at just 13 years old.
Evans was raised by her grandmother and aunt in Chapel Hill, N.C., with seven other cousins and siblings. Adoringly, Evans recalled her grandmother asking the children, “Come up with some words for this song,” about “Shake Sugaree,” which would become the title track the album. Cotten picked the guitar and her grandchildren chimed in verses such as, “Pawn my farm, pawn my plough, pawned everything, even pawned my old cow.” Cotten regularly included her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in her music and performances.
“I am inspired by the relationship between Elizabeth and her children and grandchildren,” Pruett said, “because I meet so many people who feel that you cannot continue being artists once they have the responsibility of children.”
Evans relayed that if “grannie” had nobody to watch the young children, then she would just take them along, and often even ask them to perform with her.
Evans initially contacted Pruett after seeing a resource Website the Placerville artist made to honor an inspiration of hers, Elizabeth Cotten. Evans remembered being touched by the content of the Website commemorating her grandmother. Pruett celebrates the Internet as a resource for local artists to make global connections.
Elizabeth Cotten received a Grammy at the age of 89 for album “Elizabeth Cotten Live.” Cotten, known for “Cotten style” guitar picking, was respected not only for her music, but also her extremely philanthropic nature. Evans noted her grandmother inviting homeless off the street to eat with the family, even through her own poverty.
Pruett brought a camera assistant who recorded several hours of digital video and audio recordings. She has begun the editing process with no explicit goal in mind except to “see how it takes shape.” Pruett’s short film, “Our Love and Voices” was recently screened at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.