A couple of years ago, in my Procrastination King mode when I started this writeup, I might’ve called Etta Baker a living legend, the Queen of the Piedmont Blues. As I begin to put the finishing touches on this short biography however, I’ll have to amend that description: the legendary finger-picking guitar player died September 23, 2006 at the age of 93. She learned Dew Drop from her father as a three-year-old but was 60 before she played her first solo gig, and 78 when she cut her first record.
Etta Baker was an inspiration to “late bloomers” everywhere.
She was born Etta Lucille Reid in Caldwell County, North Carolina, on March 31, 1913. Her father, a multi-instrumentalist hunter and sportsman who shipped furs to wholesalers in Baltimore, had eight musical children, and Etta learned guitar, banjo, and violin at his knee.
“It didn’t take a lot to live on like it do now,” she said in an interview. “He raised most of what we needed.”
Music began and ended the day for the Reid family. In an instructional video produced by famed Woodstock resident and guitarist Happy Traum, Etta talks about how her father placed her fingers on her guitar before she turned three years old. Initially, she fingered and strummed the instrument as it lay horizontally on her lap. They played old-time breakdowns and waltzes that had been passed down for generations. “Where we lived was in a white section but everybody was one family,” she says. “At night they’d have big dinners and when dinner was over they’d go back to dancing. Never Let Your Deal Go Down was one of the main tunes at Saturday night dinner and dancing. I guess that’s why they call them the good old days.”
The traditional Piedmont style of blues playing evolved as a mixture of Blue Ridge Mountains Country, Gospel, Ragtime, and the markedly less-rhythmic and melodic traditional Delta Blues of the Deep South. Piedmont Blues, with its emphasis on melody, passing bass lines and passing chords, has been described as “light and easy and enchanting,” but Etta herself called it a “self style,” primarily because she made up her own unique sound as she went.
For decades, only friends and family had witnessed Etta’s playing at barn raisings and corn shuckings. She married Lee Baker and moved to Morganton, North Carolina, where she gave birth to nine children, including two sets of twins. She was a famously beautiful woman, we are told, and her jealous husband refused to allow her to perform publicly. Nonetheless, in 1956, she appeared on a compilation album called Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians, which was a seminal record in the American Folk Music Revival. This is where (very!) young folkies like myself first heard Railroad Bill, John Henry, and One-Dime Blues, all performed by Mrs. Etta Baker. These became her signature tunes. Musicians who could keep up with her blazing version of One-Dime Blues were said to be “one-diming” it.
Bob Dylan met her on his 21st birthday and borrowed her finger-picking style (not to mention the traditional melody!) for Don't Think Twice, It's All Right. Famed bluesman Taj Mahal, who recorded an album with Etta in 2004, was inspired by her as well: “I came upon that record in the '60s,” he said. It didn’t have any pictures, so I had no idea who she was until I got to meet her years later. But man, that chord in Railroad Bill, that was just the chord. It cut right through me. I can’t even describe how deep that was for me, just beautiful stuff. Older chords seem you can see right through them into the past.”
In 1964, Lee Baker suffered a debilitating stroke. That same year Etta had a serious car accident that killed one of her grandchildren. During one month in 1967, her husband died and one of her sons was killed in the Vietnam War. After working 26 years at the Buster Brown shoe factory in Morganton, Etta quit at the age of 60 and began playing music full time. She was the queen of the international folk festival circuit, and played professionally well into her 80’s, until heart problems finally took her off the road. “I remember being at this banjo festival one time,” says Taj Mahal, and I wanted to have my picture taken with her. And she looked at me kinda sideways and asked, 'Now you ain’t gonna get in no trouble with me, are ya?’ And she was 80-some years old.”
In 1991, at the age of 78, she recorded her first album, One-Dime Blues. In 1999 came Railroad Bill, which included the classics I Get the Blues When It Rains, Careless Love, Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, John Henry,, and Cripple Creek. In spite of failing health she recorded Etta Baker with Taj Mahal in 2004 and appeared on Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s 2006 CD, 10 Days Out—Blues from the Backroads.
Etta Baker died in Fairfax, Virginia, while visiting one of her daughters who had suffered a stroke. She had played guitar for over 90 years.
“She embodied everything we love about the South. She was strong, warm, witty, gentle; a gardener and also the world’s premiere Piedmont-style blues guitarist.…Anybody who has picked up acoustic finger-style guitar has been influenced by Etta, whether they know it or not.”
—Tim Duffy, Music Maker Relief Foundation
Etta Baker Discography
1956 : Instrumental Music from the Southern Appalachians (Tradition Records; reissued 1997)
1991 : One-Dime Blues (Rounder Select)
1998 : The North Carolina Banjo Collection (various artists) (Rounder)
1999 : Railroad Bill (Music Maker)
2004 : Etta Baker with Taj Mahal (Music Maker 50)
2005 : Carolina Breakdown with Cora Phillips (Music Maker 56)
2006 : Knoxville Rag with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, "10 Days Out- Blues From The Backroads (Reprise Records)
The Fingerpicking Blues of Etta Baker
, (Homespun Tapes), 1996
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Bud and Travis
Camaron de la Isla
Wild Bill Donovan
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
king of the queens
Paco de Lucia
the Real McCoy
Robert K. Merton
J. Fred Muggs
Bernardino de Sahagun
A. J. Weberman