Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten, written by singer-songwriter (and longtime fan) Laura Veirs and illustrated byTatyana Fazlalizadeh, creator of the international street art series, Stop Telling Women to Smile. Reading Libba and the fascinating author's note and resources at the end of the book sent me down a path to learn more about Elizabeth Cotten, her contributions to folk music, Laura Veirs and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.
The beautiful cover for Libba: The Magnificent Life of Elizabeth Cotten drew me in immediately. The book case, which is steel blue and has the sound hole and strings of a guitar embossed on it, and the endpapers which feature the next of the guitar, Elizabeth Cotten's hand and her unique style of playing, are also fantastic. Veirs's story of Cotten's life is gently poetic, the refrain from Cotten's most famous song, Freight Train, which she wrote when she was just eleven years old, repeated in the text. Born in 1893, the granddaughter of freed enslaved people, "Libba Cotten heard music everywhere." When her brother was at work, she would sneak into his room and borrow his guitar (although the author's notes reveal that she first taught herself to play on her brother's banjo before moving on to his guitar). Left-handed, Libba taught herself to play by turning the guitar upside down and backwards, "kind of like brushing your teeth with your foot. Or tying a shoe with one hand. Nobody else played that way, but it was the way that felt right to Libba."

Libba worked and bought her own guitar after Claude moved out. But, "Even trains get derailed," Veirs writes, Fazlalizadeh's illustration partnering with the text, train cars depicting moments from Cotten's life. By the time she was a young woman, "time swept Libba up, and she stopped playing guitar." Decades later, a "stately grandmother working in a department store," Libba met Ruth Crawford Seeger, modernist composer, mother to Peggy and Mike Seeger and step-mother to Pete Seeger, and became housekeeper to this musical family. In her author's notes, Veirs's marvelously refers to this moment (which happened when Cotten finds Ruth's daughter, lost in the department store) as the, "accidental meeting of two musical geniuses." Cotten starts playing the guitar again. Moved by her talent and skill, the Seegers helped share Cotten's talent all over the world and she toured into her nineties.
Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten is magnificent on so many levels. Veirs's story focuses on the non-traditional story of an artist who shared her talent with others and enjoyed success later in life. Yet, as the author's notes make clear, Cotten, "accomplished so much despite growing up poor in the segregated South where very few opportunities were available to her." And, while I am not musical or knowledgeable about music (although I am left handed and I did take guitar lessons, playing with my right hand dominant, as a kid) Veirs's book and back matter inspired me to learn more about Elizabeth Cotten. I listened to her music and watched videos of her performing and was transported. As a lefty, I know that doing many things is just a little bit harder, but, despite Veirs's apt analogies, I didn't realize what an feat learning to play and playing the guitar upside down and backwards is as well as how complex her fingerstyle technique was. Veirs calls Cotten, "gentle, graceful, brilliant and spiritual," and watching her perform, you immediately know that these are the perfect adjectives to describe her. I hope you will give Libba a listen. My favorite song is Shake Sugaree, which is performed on her second album by Cotten's twelve-year-old great-granddaughter, Brenda Evans, with lyrics written by her grandchildren. As she says in the liner notes to the album, "the first verse, my eldest great-grandson, he made that himself, and from that each child would say a word and add to it. To tell the truth, I don't know what got it started, but it must have been something said or something done." Also, please take time for Laura Veirs's video for July Flame, a beautiful song with really cool animation!

Source: Review Copy

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