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Etta Baker biography


The Premier Female Piedmont Blues Guitar Instrumentalist

Etta Baker of Morganton, NC, was born in 1913 and played guitar since the age of 3. She was the premier female Piedmont blues guitar instrumentalist, played the guitar everyday, and was constantly working on new arrangements. Etta Baker maintained a beautiful yard and garden, and was matriarch of 108 members in her family. Her last album was Etta Baker with Taj Mahal. On a summer day in 1956, Boone Reid of Morganton, NC took his family to nearby Cone Mansion. The brilliant folksinger Paul Clayton happened to be walking the grounds with his guitar. Etta Baker remembered, “My daddy asked Paul to let me play One-Dime Blues. He was over the next day with his tape-recorder.” Clayton issued these pieces on an album that became among the most influential recordings of the folk era, Instrumental Music from the Southern Appalachians on Tradition Records. Etta Baker’s renditions of One-Dime Blues and Railroad Bill became standards at the height of the folk music revival in New England. Taj Mahal a student at UMASS in the early 60s first heard this LP in a college dorm: “I was immediately taken by her version of Railroad Bill. She is the greatest influence in my guitar playing.” Etta Baker had numerous offers to perform but did not go because, “My husband could play piano real well, we could have made it, but he did not want to leave home.” Paul Clayton had a cabin outside of Charlottesville, VA, and he would bring his musician friends down from the New York folk scene to visit Etta Baker. Paul, a friend to Bob Dylan brought Bob and Susie Rotolo to visit Etta Baker in 1962 to celebrate Bob’s 21st birthday. Bob soon after rewrote Clayton’s song Whose Going to Buy You Ribbons, When I’m Gone into Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, in which you can clearly hear Etta’s guitar influence. Etta Baker’s early recordings have always been available. The Bakers never granted permission for them to be released. 48 years later she has reclaimed ownership for her music that had such far-reaching effect. Etta Baker lived last in Morganton, North Carolina, and died on September 23, 2006 in Fairfax, Virginia at the age of 93, while visiting a daughter who had suffered a stroke. Taj Mahal has always made homage to Etta Baker by performing her music. He explains, “That chord in Railroad Bill is a very ancient root chord; it strikes straight through me, every time I hear it played.”