Libba – The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten

Music is something that can touch you very deeply. Many religions use music in prayer. Workers have long used singing to keep the drudgery of their jobs at bay. It can pick us up when we are down and soothe us when we are out of sorts. For the nonfiction picture book challenge, I give you a wonderful book about Libba Cotten.


Music was a big part of North Carolina in the 1890s when Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born. People sang in the cotton fields where they worked and the churches where they worshiped. Libba taught herself to play her brother’s guitar at a young age and became an accomplished player. The new book, Libba – The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten, by Laura Veirs and illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh tells the amazing journey Libba took from teaching herself to play through becoming a well known guitarist with a style even named after her.

Children are often taught about the disparity between whites and blacks after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights movement, but Libba illustrates some of the disparities that existed. Libba had a love of music, but life can get in the way of us following our passions. In the book, we learn that she was amazingly lucky that while working in a department store in the 1940s, she helped Ruth Crawford Seeger, an accomplished musician, and was offered the job as the Seeger’s housekeeper. The Seeger home was filled with music and everyone was shocked when they discovered that Libba could play and they helped spread the word about her music.

opening spread

The story itself is very simple, but is beautifully told. You get a sense of how important music was to Libba Cotten and just how talented she was. Veirs also includes a long Author’s Note in the back filled with a ton of fascinating information, including the fact that religious leaders in her community growing up urged her to stop playing for the guitar was “devil’s music,” and that at 16 she became a mother, which helps put her life in perspective.

I loved learning about a musical legend who influenced some of the artists that I grew up listening to! I’ve included her version of her most popular song as well as Pete Seeger’s.

nfpb18 I challenge myself to review a nonfiction picture book every week as part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy. Check out Alyson’s site for a link-up of amazing nonfiction books!




Here is Pete Seeger singing the song as well.

One comment

  1. What a fascinating woman – I’d never heard of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten before this book, I’m so glad that picture books are helping bring women like Libba to the attention of new generations.

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