Etta Baker: 1913 to 2006
I stumbled upon her one Saturday afternoon on the grounds of the state capitol in Raleigh: Etta Baker, in a cheery yellow sweater buttoned to the lace collar at her neck, flanked onstage by several of North Carolina’s most revered traditional blues musicians. She was stooped over a guitar that seemed incongruous in her grandmotherly frame.
Until she began to play. She waited as the men surrounding her picked out their tunes, and when it was her turn, what emerged from her heart through her fingers transcended all genres, all categories. None of the fine blues being performed that day sounded anything like the music Etta Baker was making.
It was legendary in North Carolina that fans could show up at her doorstep in Morganton. She’d invite them in, serve iced tea on the porch, and show them a few licks on her guitar. She began to play her method of fingerpicking, which came to be known as Piedmont blues, when she was just shy of 3 years old. She would lay the guitar flat on the bed so she could reach and strum the neck. She awoke every morning to the sound of her father, Boone Reid, playing guitar, then banjo, then violin. She would watch his hands and try to re-create the intricate melodies he plucked in the two-finger style; she said she knew then that this was the thing she must do.
She eventually learned banjo and fiddle as well, and with her father and sister Cora, Etta played frequently at dances and parties, for vacationers and neighbors in the Johns River community of Caldwell County. She stopped these performances after her marriage to Lee Baker in 1936; she worked in a textile mill for 26 years, raised nine children, and tended her garden. But she never stopped playing.
In 1973, at age 60, she quit her job and ventured out to find her audience. Whether with an acoustic guitar or using a slide on her Les Paul Special, she had an impeccable technical ability infused with emotion. Piedmont blues, influenced by the music of the Appalachians, is typically sprightly, so that even the saddest song has a spring it its step. Etta’s improvisations on classic tunes could not hide her joy for living. There are exceptions, like the deep sorrow on “Alabama Wagonwheel” or “But On The Other Hand Baby”, from her 1991 Rounder release One-Dime Blues.
“Good for her,” said April McGreger, who used to accompany Etta at Merlefest, when told of Etta’s peaceful passing September 23 at age 93. “She lived a good long life.” Indeed she had, from her happy musical childhood, through years of hard work and the trials and joys of motherhood, until the folk revival found her picking on her porch and chanced to deliver her music to the world. Good for her, and for us. This is the image I will carry of Etta Baker: quiet, gracious, humble, calmly blowing everyone else off the stage.