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

By Maureen Tai, 24 August 2018

“She turned the guitar upside down and played it backwards. It was 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.”


This picture book has a sound track.  Search for “libba cotten freight train” in Google and you’ll likely pull up a 3 minute YouTube video of a youthful looking elderly lady in a pintuck white blouse, her greying hair tied back, her face composed, a slight smile on her lips. She is in what I assume is her living room, and she’s playing a guitar with slender, agile fingers.  If you were a guitar-playing person, you’d notice that her guitar is upside down, and that she’s playing backwards. She’s left-handed, but playing on a right-handed guitar. She sings an American folk tune in a slightly cracking, but charmingly soothing voice.

“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.”

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was a little girl with a deep love for music and a talent for playing the guitar. By the time that love and her unusual playing style had become known to the world, she was a grandmother.  Libba is her story.

Elizabeth Cotten (1893 – 1987) was born in North Carolina to a poor, but musical African American family. She was a grandchild of freed slaves. She lived close by train tracks, taught herself to play the guitar and wrote what was to be her most famous song, Freight Train, when she was just eleven years old.  She worked as a maid from a young age and by the time Libba became a housekeeper at a musician’s household, she was in her sixties, a grandmother. Her employer discovered her musical talent, decided to help her showcase it and well, as they say, the rest is history.

Libba’s tale of quiet determination and dogged perseverance is gently and lyrically told in this luminously illustrated picture book, which provides a glimpse of how it was growing up and living as a poor coloured person in early 1900s America.  Life was simple, but hard. Elizabeth Cotten shows us that if you love something enough, keep doing it, no matter how hard things are, no matter if no one is looking or listening, no matter if you’re a little girl with pigtails and not much money, or a grandmother with twinkling eyes in a comfortable cardigan. Just keep rolling on.

For ages 5 and above.

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