Elizabeth Cotten, known as “Libba,” was born in North Carolina in 1893. (She died in 1987.) As she told Mike Seeger (a half-brother of Pete Seeger), in a 1966 interview, “My father’s people was Indians. My father’s mother was a slave. My mother’s people were not slaves.”
Her older brother Claude played the banjo, and Libba would practice on it even though she had to play it upside down because she was left-handed. When Claude moved away, taking his banjo with him, Libba did chores for other people so she could save up for a guitar, which she was able to buy for $3.75. [Note: the author writes that Claude had a guitar in addition to the banjo that Libba played, but Libba herself recalled that Claude only had a banjo.]
When Libba transferred her songs to the guitar, she used a unique style reflecting the different pitch positions of strings on the two instruments. She taught herself to play using first two, then three fingers. [Today this is known as the “Cotten style” of playing the guitar; Libba is considered one of the “finest fingerpickers on record,” according to Guitar Player magazine. Her fingerpicking techniques influenced many other musicians.]
She played whenever she could, and wrote her first song when she was still 12. “Freight Train” is a tune most readers will recognize, since it has been covered many times by singers ranging from Pete Seeger to Paul McCartney. [As has historically been the case with black songwriters, the copyright for the song was misappropriated by others. In Libba’s case, the Seeger family worked to get the copyright restored to her.]
The author writes that “Time swept Libba up, and she stopped playing guitar.” A picture in this book showing Libba holding a baby suggests that family got in the way. Libba herself tells a much more interesting story:
“I [dropped the guitar for a while] on account of religion. . . . I was baptized. The deacons, if any of them people see you or hear tell of you doing something that’s not Christian, they would report it at the church. So they told me, ‘You cannot live for God and live for the devil.’ If you’re going to play them old worldly songs, them old ragtime things, you can’t serve God that way. You’ve either got to do one or the other.”
She relates that it was hard for her, but she gradually stopped playing. It was only after that decision that she married, and then had a baby and housework that keep her too busy to play. In addition, she took in washing and ironing to help earn money for the family. In time, she said, she mostly forgot about the guitar.
When Libba was in her sixties and a grandmother, she worked in a department store. One day, the author reports, Libba encountered a little girl lost in the store. She found the child’s mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, who happened to be part of the famous musical Seeger family. Ruth offered Libba a job as the family’s housekeeper.
Libba loved how the house was filled with music. One day Libba picked up one of the guitars and began to play:
“Soon the whole house was turned upside down and backwards. The children were clearing the dishes and washing up. The bluesmen were singing Libba’s songs.”
As an article on American Folkways from the Smithsonian relates that the Seegers were “astonished” by what they heard, and not only encouraged Libba’s playing but helped publicize her virtuosity. The Smithsonian reports:
“By 1958, at the age of sixty-two, Libba had recorded her first album, Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes (Folkways 1957, now reissued as Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs, Smithsonian Folkways 1989). Meticulously recorded by Mike Seeger, this was one of the few authentic folk-music albums available by the early 1960s, and certainly one of the most influential. In addition to the now well-recorded tune “Freight Train,” penned by Cotten when she was only eleven or twelve, the album provided accessible examples of some of the ‘open’ tunings used in American folk guitar. She played two distinct styles on the banjo and four on the guitar, including her single-string melody picking ‘Freight Train’ style, an adaptation of Southeastern country ragtime picking.”
Libba became part of the folk music revival of the 1960s and 1970s, and went on tour throughout America and Europe. The author concludes:
“Libba turned her guitar upside down and backwards so she could play it her own way. She turned the music world upside down and backwards, too.”
The author affixes an extensive Note to the end of the book, observing: “Today, ‘Freight Train’ is considered one of the most famous folk songs in the world.” In 1984 Cotten was declared a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and she received a Grammy Award in 1985 when she was ninety, almost eighty years after she first began composing her own works.
The author herself is a singer and songwriter, and expresses admiration for Libba who “accomplished so much despite growing up poor in the segregated South where very few opportunities were available to her.” She explains that Libba’s story appeals to her “as a musician, as a woman, and as a fan of folk history.”
A bibliography including links to websites and videos is included.
Graphite drawings with soft focus and muted colors help convey the historic nature of the story. The illustrator, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, is an excellent choice for this story. She is an activist and lecturer who speaks out for the rights of women and people of color. She is also the creator of Stop Telling Women to Smile, an international street art series that tackles gender-based street harassment.
Evaluation: This book provides an introduction to a courageous and persistent young girl whose achievements should not be forgotten. Accompanying this story with a Youtube video of Libba Cotten is an absolute must. There are many on Youtube; one is shown below. The rendition by Joan Baez, available on Youtube as well, is also worth seeking out.
Published by Chronicle Books, 2018