On ‘Libba’ & How Folk Musician Elizabeth Cotten Inspired Laura Veirs

Acclaimed singer songwriter Laura Veirs is a longtime fan of the music of Elizabeth Cotten, the folk musician known as ‘Libba’, who is the subject of her beautiful picture book published by Chronicle Books. Cotten’s story is astonishing – a self taught guitarist who was only discovered in later life due to an unexpectedly wonderful twist of fate. The story begins in childhood when Libba picks up her brother’s guitar and plays. Of course she famously learns to play upside down and backwards because she was left handed. This self-taught eccentricity actually became her signature unique style. She wrote songs like Freight Train before she turned thirteen.

Libba’s story then derails somewhat when she grows up, starts a family and leaves music behind. In her later years she worked in a department store and after returning a lost child she began an association with folk music family the Seegers. Eventually the Seegers realised what talent they had found and encouraged Libba to begin performing. Peggy Seeger herself sang Cotten’s songs and continues to be an advocate for her. Peggy has recently released her own biography First Time Ever and I’m intrigued to read it and hopefully find out more about Cotten and the Seeger family.

When Veirs discovered the connection to the Seegers she began to have the idea for this picture book, explaining how she believed it was ‘a story worth telling.’ She went on to explain how ‘the seed sort of simmered around for several years until I actually just buckled down and wrote it. It only took a few months of research and writing to get that down…people should know about her. She’s a folk treasure of our country.’

Picture books should be poetic, simple but profound. This one is no exception, with Veirs’ lyrical talent shining through on every page. The story has a perfect happy ending, finishing with Cotten’s eventual success. Libba tells the truth of how life’s train can transport you in unexpected directions, for better and worse.

Elizabeth Cotten lived and toured into her nineties, playing music to crowds she had probably never even thought to dream of. The story doesn’t end there as she continues to influence folk musicians to this day. Freight Train has become an important part of the folk tradition, with covers performed by many including the earliest incarnation of The Beatles. More recently Rhiannon Giddens covered Cotten’s song Shake Sugaree on her album ‘Tomorrow is my Turn’, calling Cotten a ‘genius guitar player’ who ‘was just one of those women who was so exciting to me.’

This picture book has been a couple of years in the making and it’s lovely to see it finally published. The book also includes a wealth of references for readers to investigate Cotten’s life and work further, including video and web links. Having known nothing about this artist before I read ‘Libba’ I found the whole story utterly captivating and inspiring.  The illustrations by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh are equally stunning and really bring to life the vibrant personality of this talented musician and the graphite style evokes the mood of the time period perfectly.

Buy this book for all the little people you know and keep Libba’s folk music freight train rolling.

Another interesting project that Veirs has been involed in is a podcast exploring how musicians cope with parenthood. Midnight Lightning has episodes interviewing Corin Tucker of Sleater Kinney, bassist Carole Kay and singer/songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello and upcoming shows will feature Rosanne Cash among others. These fascinating discussions deal with the complex challenges of balancing creativity with children, as well as the logistics of juggling childcare with touring. She has a list of over a hundred parents she’d like to talk to, and hopes she can explore these issues further with men in series two. So please subscribe to this podcast to hear more of these informative and illuminating discussions.

BUY ‘LIBBA’: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Libba-Magnificent-Musical-Elizabeth-Cotten/dp/1452148570

SUBSCRIBE TO ‘MIDNIGHT LIGHTNING’: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/midnight-lightning/id1322181367?mt=2

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