Beverly “Guitar” Watkins was born in 1940 in Atlanta, Georgia. She began a lifelong love of music at the age of eight, when her aunt gave her a guitar; the very first song she learned to play was the blues classic “John Henry.” Learning from her family, and even the local coal deliveryman, helped her develop a unique, hard-playing guitar style.
Algia Mae Hinton was born on August 29, 1929 in Johnston County, North Carolina. Her parents, Alexander and Ollie O’Neal, were farmers who raised tobacco, cotton, cucumbers and sweet potatoes. Mother Ollie could play many stringed instruments and began teaching Algia when she was just nine years old. Algia was the youngest of fourteen children and worked the fields from an early age. Her musical and agricultural upbringing set the stage for her adult life. Algia married Millard Hinton in 1950. Her husband died in 1965, forcing Algia to raise her seven children alone by working long hours on the farm. Despite these trying circumstances, Algia kept the music alive and passed it on to her children. Together, they fought off the hard times by entertaining the people of their community. Over the years Algia’s music has gained international recognition.
Etta Baker is perhaps one of the most well-known women in Blues of the last century, but that is not a large crowd. Etta, born in Appalachian North Carolina in 1913, grew up in a musical family in a racially diverse area. She told NPR in 2005, “Where we lived was a white section, but everybody was one family. I played with my sister Cora and Daddy at big dances for both white and blacks.”
Etta picked up a guitar at the age of three, learning from her father, a clawhammer banjo player, and her community. Diverse musical influences make up Etta Baker’s style – African-American Blues, white country picking and English fiddle tunes can been seen and heard in her unique finger picking, and her father passed on a love of mountain music and Piedmont blues that stayed with her all her life. Etta Baker became the “finest finger-style Piedmont Blues guitarist to come out of North Carolina,” writes Susan Simone.
We think of the blues player as a wandering, itinerant musician, traveling with his guitar, playing his music and spreading the musical styles of the South across the nation. What we often don’t realize in that scenario is that the stereotype is possible because a woman was in the home, caring for his children, working the fields or the factory, and harboring her own musical talents that were shadowed by obscurity.
B is off to Atlanta this week visiting more artists, but while she’s away we wanted to share with you her thoughts about her first days as part of the Music Maker team! See the video she shot on the trip below.
When I came down to North Carolina at the beginning of this year essentially the first thing I did as a Music Maker team member was embark on a road trip with Tim Duffy and Aaron Greenhood. It was an experience I hadn’t had before. The first day we went to South Carolina to visit Drink Small; the only other time I’d been to South Carolina was to visit Charleston with my family. I had my first experience with homemade soul food at a hole in the wall off the highway that first day – it was amazing! Afterwards we headed over to Drink’s to do a photo shoot; when we arrived he was sitting slouched way back in his couch. He had recently gone blind, so he seemed a bit disoriented, and a little down. Tim started joking around with him, and soon Drink was smiling. Tim also started talking with Drink about his recent blindness, and asked him if he remembered what he (Tim) looked like. Drink said yes, and then Tim went on to say how it must be strange to hear your friend’s voice and not be able to see him anymore. It made me so sad to hear about Drink’s blindness, but I knew that we would be able to cheer him up. Soon, he was playing and singing with Tim.