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.
Jason Akeny writes about Etta’s music for All Music Guide, “[Etta Baker was] among the foremost practitioners of acoustic Piedmont guitar fingerpicking, an open-tuned style not far removed from bluegrass banjo picking; however” he adds, “for decades only relatives and friends ever heard her play, as she confined her performances solely to family gatherings and parties.”
While opportunities for music acts on a national level were few and far between, Etta was limited in reaching for acclaim by her husband’s decision. “My husband could play piano real well,” Baker reflects. “I believe we could have made it, but as he did not want to leave home, there was nothing I could say.”
Instead, Etta helped earn her family’s income by working in textile mills. In 1956 Etta encountered folklorist Paul Clayton while on a family outing to Cone Mansion. From there, Clayton and his colleagues recorded Etta and her music was heard by a wider audience including future blues legend Taj Mahal. Her music, accessible to audiences now via Paul Clayton, began to influence the music scene of the 1960s, including Bob Dylan, but she did not receive financial compensation for her efforts.
In 1992, at age 78, Etta recorded her first album, One Dime Blues, on Rounder Records. In 1989, she received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council. In 1991, Etta received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, and, in 2003, the North Carolina Award.
Etta began a partnership with Music Maker and Tim Duffy in 1995, visiting the foundation along with Algia Mae Hinton and Wayne Martin, and recording with Taj Mahal. An album of those recordings, Etta Baker with Taj Mahal, was released by Music Maker in 2004, after the foundation released Railroad Bill in 1999. Music Maker promoted Etta, paid her for her work, and was able to secure royalty payments for her past work, additionally helping her with expenses to repair her kitchen and buy needed medication, and granting her several instruments.
Etta Baker, a legendary woman in blues despite her late entry into the national music spotlight, passed away in 2006. Her contributions to music will not be forgotten, and her talents will always be a delight to listen to – accessible to future generations at Tim Duffy’s archive in the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC -Chapel Hill.