[review + giveaway] Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Freight train, freight train run so fast
Freight train, freight train run so fast
Please don’t tell what train I’m on
They won’t know what route I’ve gone.

So begins one of the most famous folk songs of the twentieth century. Here in America, many of us grew up hearing it on the radio or at music festivals, or maybe even in the classroom.

Though I was familiar with the popular renditions of “Freight Train” by Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, I never really knew who wrote the song, nor had I heard of African American folk musician, singer and songwriter Elizabeth Cotten before reading this fabulous new picture book.

In Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by singer-songwriter Laura Veirs and debut illustrator Tatyana Fazlalizadeh (Chronicle Books, 2018), we see how Libba ultimately accomplished “what she was born to do” despite the many ups and downs in her life.

Libba grew up poor in the segregated South, but she was blessed with a musical gift. Early on, her natural ear was attuned to the unique melodies she heard all around her.

Libba Cotten heard music everywhere.

She heard it in the river when she brought water for her mother. She heard it in the ax when she chopped wood for kindling. She heard it in the freight trains moving down the tracks near her home.

 

She was born into a musical family near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1893. As a child, she liked to make up songs with her older brother Claude. While he was at work, she snuck into his room and taught herself to play his guitar, which was strung for a right-handed player. But Libba was left handed, so she had to turn the guitar upside down and play it “backwards.” She invented her own way of playing, a way that felt right to her.

When Claude moved away from home, he took his guitar with him. So Libba worked as a domestic helper to earn money to buy her own instrument. She made 75 cents a month and eventually bought a Stella guitar for $3.75.

Then she practiced. And practiced — staying up late learning new songs after hearing them just once or twice. She became very proficient at the guitar and began writing her own songs.

Her first, “Freight Train,” was written when she was just 11, and was inspired by the sound of a train she often heard while lying in her bed at night.

But life happened, and her musical aspirations were temporarily derailed for decades. She did domestic work, got married as a teen, had a daughter, and moved with her family around the eastern U.S. When her daughter married, Libba divorced her husband and moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her.

Now a grandmother, Libba took a job working at a department store selling dolls. One fortuitous day, she helped a little girl who was lost in the store find her mother. That woman turned out to be Ruth Crawford Seeger, an eminent composer and music teacher (and stepmother to Pete Seeger). The two women took to each other instantly, and soon after, Libba accepted Ruth’s offer to work as her housekeeper.

Libba couldn’t have found a better family to live with, since the Seeger family home was always filled with music.

While Libba was busy cooking, baking, and taking care of the children, she heard “banjos in the bedrooms, pianos in the parlor, and bass drums in the basement.” Musicians like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Muddy Waters passed through. Libba listened and joyfully rediscovered her passion for music.

One day the family heard beautiful sounds coming from the kitchen. Libba was singing and playing! They all asked to hear more and soon some of the bluesmen were playing Libba’s songs, too.

The Seegers believed in Libba and her natural, God-given talent. Though they helped spread the word about her music, “it was Libba’s perseverance, her love of music, and her belief in herself that gave the world her voice.”

Libba’s “Freight Train” was soon being sung around the world. She performed all over the U.S. and Europe in her sixties, seventies, and eighties, and earned a Grammy when she was in her early nineties.

Veirs’s lyrical narrative will captivate young readers, who’ll be inspired to listen to Libba’s music and learn more about her. Veirs makes good use of the train metaphor throughout to describe the rhythms of Libba’s life and her resilience and determination: “Libba Cotten never stopped in her tracks. She kept rolling.”

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s gorgeous graphite and digitally colored illustrations lovingly evoke days gone by and the humble but enduring roots of folk music. Her portraits of Libba as a girl and a woman are especially luminous, as they capture her gentle spirit, warmth, and grace. With her eyes closed and a smile on her face, Libba listens deeply, joyfully attuned to the music without and within.

It’s good to be reminded that you’re never too young or too old to follow your dreams and fulfill your potential. For many years, Libba had to give up the one thing she loved the most, but through lucky happenstance, she later found herself at precisely the right place with the right people at the right time.

The little girl who taught herself to play the guitar “upside down and backwards” launched a professional career in her late 60’s and became an American folk music icon. Her unique style of picking the bass strings with her fingers and the melody (treble) strings with her thumb (aptly named “cotten-picking”) has inspired and influenced generations of younger musicians. Libba was also a key figure in the 60’s folk revival.

Veirs has included a lengthy Author’s Note with more details about Cotten’s life and her relationship with the Seegers. Libba had quite an extensive musical repertoire that included “standards, dance tunes, and rags,” and she was also self taught on the banjo since childhood.

Veirs mentions hearing “Freight Train” as a child growing up, learning the complex fingerstyle technique of the song while studying country-blues guitar in her twenties, and finally discovering the story of Libba’s chance meeting with Ruth Seeger while recording her first album of songs for children.

Finally, there’s a comprehensive list of websites, videos, interviews, recordings and liner notes for further study.

Truly a magnificent musical life, Libba’s story is well worth reading, a natural choice for Black History and Women’s History months, and a must read for folk music aficionados.

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There are many good Elizabeth Cotten videos available online. Here are two of my favorites. In the second one, Libba tells Pete Seeger about when she met his stepmother Ruth Seeger in the department store. Check out her impressive picking technique in the Wilson Rag!

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LIBBA: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten
written by Laura Veirs
illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
published by Chronicle Books, January 2018
Picture Book Biography for ages 6-9, 40 pp.
**Starred Reviews** from School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly, and a Junior Library Guild Selection

🎼 Download the Common Core-Aligned Teacher’s Guide from the publisher’s website

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📗 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 📘

The publisher is generously donating a copy of LIBBA for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EST) Wednesday, March 7, 2018. You may also enter by sending an email with LIBBA in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to residents of the U.S. and Canada only, please. Good Luck!

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The beautiful and multi-talented Renée LaTulippe is hosting the Roundup at No Water River. Sail on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Happy March!


*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2018 Laura Veirs, illustrations © 2018 Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, published by Chronicle Books. All rights reserved.

**This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. If you purchase something using a link on this site, Jama’s Alphabet Soup will receive a small referral fee (at no extra cost to you). Thank you for your support.

***Copyright © 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

60 thoughts on “[review + giveaway] Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

    1. Yes, me too — otherwise I never would have known about her. Also got to listen to Laura Veirs’s music while writing this post. 🙂

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  1. Amazing woman with an amazing talent. There are so many strong, intelligent black women that we know so little about. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, this really makes you wonder about the many others with valuable contributions and inspiring lives whom we know nothing about. I’m glad to be seeing more books about notable women in general, though.

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  2. I feel inspired…it shows so much belief in herself and just having to do what .is in her soul…what she was meant to do. I can’t wait to get the book, read it and send it to my late friend’s grand daughter for her 5th birthday next week. It’s unique. The illustrations are fresh and soft with a good design sense.

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  3. This brings me back a whole bunch of years to the first job I had after college, teaching at an environmental education center where one of my co-workers was a huge Libba Cotten/Etta Baker fan, and would strum why we all sang Freight Train and Railroad Bill with the kiddos. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane and introducing this beautiful book.

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  4. It gives me goosebumps when I hear of those serendipitous connections, like Libba helping that little girl and then connecting up with the Seegers. I’ve heard that song much of my life, and sad to say, always thought Pete Seeger wrote it. What a wonderful story and picture book. Thanks so much for featuring it, Jama.

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  5. She has such a sweet little voice.
    I’m glad that Seeger, unlike SO MANY OTHER artists of the time, actually took the pains to get to know the writers of his famous songs.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I hope to be picking up this soon! Have had it on request. Love the story of her playing the guitar upside down too. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. thank you for introducing me to this women. what a story and what a beautiful voice. i also very much needed the reminder to not give up on what i want to do just because i am older than i once was.

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  8. I’m so glad you shared her story here, Jama…I’ve been more attuned to the symbiotic relationship between ragtime and Gospel music, so it’s fun to read about the overlap from the other direction (and from Libba’s point of view). This book is on my wish list now, for sure.

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    1. It was very interesting to learn about Libba and her views on being advised to give up her “worldly guitar music” while she sang in church. Luckily it was only a temporary derailment and she returned to it in full force later in life. What a musical legacy we would have all missed if she had listened to those people!

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  9. Such a wonderful story! I realized I had heard Libba singing “Freight Train” before on a collection of American folksongs put out by the Smithsonian’s folk life office, which collects music and other artifacts.

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  10. Forget the young readers, Jama, I am TOTALLY captivated by this book and Libba’s story! And fascinated by her finger picking style too. This is the first time in years I’ve wanted to pick the guitar back up, just to try it out. I also loved seeing her “bandaged up,” well-loved guitar in that second video. Plus, Pete. ❤

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  11. What a gorgeous review Jama, I love this book and look forward to reading it! I’m familiar with Elizabeth Cotten and her “Freight Train” song, I used to play it on the banjo. The music video was special to hear, as was the interview with Pete Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten, along with all their wonderful music making. I loved hearing about how Elizabeth played the guitar when she was a little girl upside down, and backwards.Thanks for this special review!

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  12. What a fascinating life story! Clearly, Libba Cotten had music in her soul. Thank you so much for introducing me to this gorgeous picture book and for including the links. This is one I’m definitely going to add to my classroom library.

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    1. Yes, she was born with music in her soul, a passion that couldn’t be denied. Glad to hear you’re going to add this book to your classroom library. 🙂

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  13. This looks and sounds glorious – thank you for sharing the words and art, and the links and music. (& I’d just come across the quote this morning often attributed to C. S. Lewis: “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream” — BUT, the good ol’ Quote Investigator says it should likely be attributed to Les Brown. So, thanks to Mr. Brown, and to Ms. Cotten, and to these creators, and to you!

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  14. What an absolutely gorgeous book – this is in my goodreads to-find shelf for the longest time now. We still don’t have it in our libraries here in Singapore which breaks my heart. But anytime now, I hope. 🙂

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    1. I love the art too — such a perfect pairing of author and illustrator for this book. Laura Veirs’s songwriting chops obviously came into play with the text. Hope she writes more picture books.

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  15. Jama this was such a captivating read all the way through. What an amazing story that almost never happened. I enjoyed listening to Libba’s song you posted, that guitar picking just moved me. I looked up the author Laura Veirs as well and listened to her music, and was blown away by the beauty of her sound. I’m so glad you discovered these two great artists and shared them on your post!

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    1. So glad you enjoyed the post and listening to Libba’s picking. Amazing natural talent. I was also happy to “discover” Laura Veirs too because of this book. She recently teamed up with k.d. lang and Neko Case for a concert which is wonderful:

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