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Review of Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten

Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten
by Laura Veirs; illus. by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
Primary    Chronicle    48 pp.
1/18    978-1-4521-4857-1    $17.99

In this picture-book biography of folk musician Elizabeth Cotten (1893–1987), a straightforward narrative describes her modest upbringing in rural North Carolina, where “Libba” taught herself to play her brother’s right-handed guitar despite having no musical training and being herself left-handed. No matter: “She turned the guitar upside down and played it backwards…Nobody else played that way, but it was the way that felt right to Libba.” The backwards fingerpicking would become her trademark, but not until much, much later, as in her teens “time swept Libba up, and she stopped playing guitar.” From there the book jumps to Cotten’s late adulthood when, as a grandmother, she’s serendipitously hired as a housekeeper by the Seegers (yes, those Seegers), who would rediscover her talent and help Cotten bring her music to the world. Fazlalizadeh’s art, rendered in graphite with feathery digital coloring, complements Veirs’s unpretentious prose exquisitely, and the interplay between the two is seamless. Despite having written what would become her most famous song, “Freight Train,” at age eleven, Cotten’s talent was sidetracked by her circumstances — she was an African American in the segregated South, a woman, and poor — until she was in her late fifties. That is, indeed, a “story worth telling” (as Veirs, herself a folk musician, puts it in her appended author’s note), and this biography should inspire young readers starting to pursue their own creative talents. Also appended with a list of works cited (websites, videos, interviews, recordings, liner notes).

From the May/June 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.

Katrina Hedeen About Katrina Hedeen

Katrina Hedeen is managing editor of The Horn Book Guide.

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