Discovered in the 1950s, Baker’s Career Blossomed Nationally Late in Life
Etta Baker grew up in Virginia and began to learn the Piedmont blues from her father, Boone Reid, from the time she was a small child. But she was 43 years old—and had been married for seven years—before her music was “discovered.” In the summer of 1956, Baker and her husband were visiting the Cone Mansion in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, when they happened to meet New York folk singer and ballad scholar Paul Clayton. Etta’s husband asked Clayton if he would listen to his wife play. Clayton handed over his guitar, heard Etta play one of her signature tunes, “One Dime Blues,” and was blown away. The next day, he showed up with his tape recorder at Etta’s home in Morganton, North Carolina. As a result, five of her songs appeared on the Clayton-produced 1956 compilation album, “Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians.”
That album proved highly influential as the folk revival began to sweep America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Etta was invited to the 1958 Newport Folk Festival—a chance she was denied by her husband, Lee Baker, who demanded she stay home. It was not until after his death that she began to perform in public. In 1991, she became a National Heritage Fellow recipient. Music Maker partnered with her to make several albums in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Etta was an extraordinarily sophisticated, highly lyrical, and ultimately extremely influential guitar player. She rarely sang and told us she didn’t need to. Her guitar, she told us, spoke for her.
“This gracious grandmother was the source of a great deal of joy and surprise when I found that she still played guitar after I had heard her early recordings in the ’60s,” says blues legend Taj Mahal. “One of the signature chords of my guitar vocabulary comes from her version of ‘Railroad Bill.’ This was the first guitar-picking style that I ever learned.”
Etta was born on March 31, 1913. She died September 23, 2006.
Top photo courtesy of the Music Maker archive.