Singer-songwriter Laura Veirs wants kids to know that they can turn things upside down and do things their own way—just like left-handed, GRAMMY Award-winning folk singer Libba Cotten, who played her right-handed guitar upside down. In her children’s book Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Veirs shares the story of the influential African American singer and guitarist who learned to play at a young age but did not attempt commercial success until her sixties.
Cotten grew up poor in a segregated North Carolina of the early 1900s and began by playing her brother’s banjo. She played it wrong-side-up without restringing it, then did the same with the family guitar. Various circumstances—including her marriage, the birth of her child, and divorce—kept Cotten from playing music for nearly forty years.
Then, when Cotten was nearing sixty years old, she was working at a department store in Washington, D.C., when she returned a lost child to her mother. The mother turned out to be Ruth Crawford Seeger, an influential folk musician and composer, the mother of Mike Seeger, and the stepmother of Pete Seeger. The little girl was Peggy Seeger. Cotten began working in their household as a cook and maid. As the home was always full of musicians, her love for music was rekindled. With the help of the Seeger family, she recorded an album, toured around the world, and eventually won a GRAMMY at age ninety.
A folksinger herself, Laura Veirs has been playing Cotten’s music for many years. “When I became a student of country blues guitar in Seattle in the 1990s, I learned quite a few of her songs in detail,” she explains. “They’re very difficult to play. Even though the basic melody is simple, the accompanying parts on the guitar are very complicated.”
Veirs finds lots of messages in Cotten’s story: the message of never giving up, that most people are capable of doing amazing things, and, most importantly, that “just because something is laying in hiding doesn’t mean it isn’t still there.”
Since learning Cotten’s music, Veirs has been intrigued by the story of an artist who achieved success so late in life and who taught herself to play in such a unique way. She was drawn to the barriers that Cotten faced in becoming a musician: she was young, poor, and black. Being a musician wasn’t a practical career; and she was discouraged from playing music by the church. As a mother, Veirs was also drawn to picture books as a medium. “I think it’s a really beautiful art form, and I love reading to kids.”
Writing Libba was, for Veirs, both natural and challenging. The first draft and publishing process came surprisingly easily to her, while the main difficulty lay in researching, conducting interviews, and getting the language just right.
One of the most important parts of her research—and the most rewarding—was talking with Cotten’s great-granddaughter, Brenda Evans. Raised by Cotten and a musician herself, Evans sang and co-wrote Cotten’s folk classic “Shake Sugaree” at age twelve. From Evans, Veirs expanded her understanding of Cotten’s personality, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies more than she ever would have been able to through book research. Veirs and Evans even played “Shake Sugaree” together live when Veirs visited D.C.
But even after the enriching experience of speaking to Cotten’s own progeny, Veirs had concerns about being a white woman telling the story of a black woman. She ended up employing the help of an expert at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco who offered suggestions on how to give Cotten more agency in the story.
“Those small things are actually big things when it comes to writing a picture book, because you only have so many words,” Veirs recognizes. “It’s similar to a song in that way. You just don’t have a lot of time or space to say the things you want to say. So every word needs to count.”
Veirs was worried about portraying the story of Cotten’s success as a product of the Seegers’ help, when in fact, “she was driving the ship.”
“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.”
Libba was illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, an artist better known for her street art and murals. Her muted, full-page illustrations with dusty gray backgrounds and heavy shadows help convey some of the struggles that pervaded Cotten’s life. But Cotten’s bright, warm smiles—Veirs’s favorite parts of the illustrations—portray an enduring optimism and lifelong passion for music.
Cotten’s manager John Ullman, who wrote the liner notes for her posthumously produced album Shake Sugaree (2004, Smithsonian Folkways), reflects on the beginnings of Cotten’s musical career, when she traveled to folk festivals, coffee shops, colleges, and elementary schools around the country. She fascinated both the young and old, all equally amazed by an eighty-year-old recording artist who sang with such heart.
Cotten passed away in 1987. Ullman muses, “The true measure of her legacy is the tens of thousands of guitarists who have included her songs as a part of their repertoires.”
Veirs is certainly a member of this cohort. She cared about Cotten’s story and wanted others to care too. By reaching out to children, she is creating a new audience for Cotten’s fascinating history and inspiring perseverance.
As the book concludes: “Libba Cotten never stopped in her tracks. She kept rolling.”
Riley Board is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont where she studies linguistics and geography.