Etta Baker

Mistress of the Piedmont blues


Etta Lucille Reid, guitarist: born Johns River, North Carolina 31 March 1913; married Lee Baker (died 1967; eight children, and one son deceased); died Fairfax, Virginia 23 September 2006.

Etta Baker was an influential guitarist whose fluid finger-picking in the delicate Piedmont blues style marked her out as an important exponent of a fast-vanishing musical tradition.

She was discovered in 1956 when a trio of musicologists, Diane Hamilton, Liam Clancy and Paul Clayton, made a field trip through Virginia and North Carolina searching for traditional performers. She recorded a handful of sides, as did several members of her extended family, including her 79-year-old father, Boone Reid, and in that same year these were issued on an album entitled Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians.

The album's impact was profound, coinciding as it did with the folk revival, and it inspired the Library of Congress to make its own series of field recordings throughout the South. Two of her performances, in particular, would capture the imagination of later generations: the mountain ballad "Railroad Bill" and her version of the traditional song "John Henry" which she played in an open chord with a jack-knife blade. Years later the popular bluesman Taj Mahal would recall his own first encounter with the disc:

I came upon that record in the 1960s. 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 just cut right through me. I can't even describe how deep that was for me, just beautiful stuff.

A native of North Carolina, Etta Baker claimed European, African-American and Native American ancestry and as a child socialised freely with the various ethnic groups to be found in the area. She started to play the guitar from the age of three, having been taught by her father; and in time would become proficient on both the banjo and the fiddle. It was also from her father that she learned many of the traditional tunes that would form her repertoire, among them "Marching Jaybird", "Never Let Your Deal Go Down" and "Bully of the Town".

As the years passed music became very much a hobby and she focused on raising a family - she had nine children - and on her work at the local textile mill. Despite the interest engendered by the Instrumental Music album, she would not record again until the 1980s. In the meantime she had to deal with her husband's premature death, in 1967, and, in that same year, with the loss of a son to the Vietnam conflict.

When she did come to record again, in 1988, it was alongside her sister Cora Phillips, their collaboration eventually surfacing on a CD entitled Carolina Breakdown (2005). By that time she was receiving belated recognition for her efforts on behalf of the Piedmont blues.

In 1992 she released a solo project, One-Dime Blues, and in 2004 recorded an eponymous album with her long-time admirer Taj Mahal. A disc showcasing her banjo picking is scheduled for release next year.

Paul Wadey

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