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Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotton by Laura Viers & Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Libba is the moving and miraculous story of an unassuming blues musician, a beautiful voice so nearly unheard.

Laura Viers, a popular contemporary folk musician, takes up the pen while artist and activist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh illustrates. Both are perfectly qualified to make Libba’s story sing. As a long-time fan, I can say reading this book feels like listening to an Elizabeth Cotton song: evocative, bittersweet, heartbreaking, life-affirming.

The young left-handed Elizabeth, ‘Libba’, discovers music by playing her brother’s guitar upside down and backwards. She saves every cent she can to buy her own guitar and writes a series of incredible songs. But fame or even recording music seem impossible dreams. Many years pass and Libba is an elderly woman working in a department store, her true talents hidden. But then she helps a little girl find her mother, the little girl’s mother likes Libba and she is hired as their housekeeper. The woman who has hired Libba is Ruth Seeger, a popular folk musician and composer whose children Peggy and Pete will go on to become folk musicians themselves. Theirs is a house of constant music, a hub for the who's-who of folk and blues. Musicians who passed through their house include Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Then Libba flips a guitar upside down and backwards and shows them how she does it.

Soon this elderly housekeeper is playing to audiences of thousands. She finally records songs like Freight Train that she had written in her teens. Her voice is free.

Though Libba’s music came to light through a twist of fate, it would be wrong to attribute her success to chance or give credit solely to those who helped her, and Laura Viers does well to delicately state this: ‘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.’

While we are happy to be able to know and listen to Elizabeth Cotton, it makes you consider the many beautiful voices who, barred by circumstance or prejudice, have remained unheard, and what can be done to rectify this. Showing children a book like Libba is a start.


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