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a magnificent musical life

libba coverLibba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten 

by Laura Veirs,  Illus. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Chronicle Books, 2018.  Hardcover Picture book, 40 pages.  Biography; Ages 5-9

Told in a structure reminiscent of Cotten’s own folk song, singer-songwriter Laura Veirs tells the story of an music idol of hers: Elizabeth Cotten.

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interior page from Libba by Laura Veirs and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

When Libba was a young girl, she took up her brother’s guitar. In order to play it left-handed, she flipped it up and around and played it backwards. Once her brother left the house, she had to raise money for her own guitar, again turning it upside down and backwards.

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interior page from Libba by Laura Veirs and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Inspired by the sounds and rhythms of her life, she composed the iconic folk song “Freight Train” before she was 13 years old. “But even trains get derailed.”

Libba’s since become a grandmother when she meets Ruth Crawford Seeger in a department store. It’s in this famous musical family’s household that Libba comes to work and eventually returns to the guitar.

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interior page from Libba by Laura Veirs and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Just as when she was young, as if no time has passed, Libba finds the time and opportunity to pick up the guitar while left unoccupied.

“Dang!” cried the kids.

“She can play!” cried the bluesmen.

Soon the whole house was turned upside down and backwards.”

And then so would the music world. She toured, exposing the world to her music and her voice.

According to the “Author’s Note,” she would record her first album in her early sixties. “Libba’s songs would be covered by Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; and the Grateful Dead, among many others.”

libba interior 3
interior page from Libba by Laura Veirs and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Fazlalizadeh’s illustrations translate an uncomplicated warmth to Libba’s story.  Noticeable, too, is how the only time Libba isn’t the single focal point of a page is when she meets Ruth Crawford Seeger. They’d nearly seem equals if not for the forward lean as Libba’s arm rests on Mrs. Seeger’s daughter’s shoulder, portraying her as “kind and gentle.”

The echoing of an earlier portrait of Libba listening is lovely. And the story shows how the qualities and the talent of the young Libba are found and continue to be nurtured in the older Libba; it just took time for her to be heard. And it took people with access to present her to the musical world. “The Seegers believed in Libba and helped spread the word about her music. But it was Libba’s perseverance, her love of music, and her belief in herself that gave the world her voice.”

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Elizabeth Cotten

I encourage you to read this book (to yourself) as you play “Freight Train.” found here on YouTube.

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