Legendary guitarist Etta Lucille Reid Baker of Morganton, North Carolina, passed away on September 23, at the age of 93. She had been in failing health for several years. Though Mrs. Baker played both guitar and five-string banjo, it was her fluid guitar finger-picking on pieces such as “One Dime Blues” and “Railroad Bill” that inspired several generations of musicians and brought her many honors. The North Carolina Arts Council recognized Etta Baker’s contributions to the musical traditions of the state in 1988 with a Folk Heritage Award, and in 1991, she received a Folk Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Etta Baker’s music came to national attention through a 1956 compilation album called Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians. Even though the album brought her critical acclaim, she turned down offers to perform outside her home community—focusing instead on raising a family of nine children, caring for her disabled husband, and working at a textile mill in Morganton. Trouble seemed to follow the family during that period. Her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1964. That same year she was in a serious car accident that killed one of her grandsons. Within one month in 1967, her husband died and one of her sons was killed in the Vietnam War. It was only when she reached her mid-60s, after her children were grown and her husband had passed away, that Mrs. Baker embarked upon a performing career.
Blessed with a gracious stage manner, Mrs. Baker became an enormous hit on the international folk-festival circuit, playing the “Piedmont blues,” a swingy finger-picking guitar style. She toured until well into her 80s, and her special warmth and charm made her irresistable to audiences. In recent decades after she had refrained from national touring, crowds flocked to her performances at the Merle Watson Festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, not too far from her home. She performed on the Old-Time Music Group’s Traditional Stage at “Merlefest” until the last couple of years.
In 2004, Mrs. Baker made a recording with Taj Mahal, who counted himself among those who had found inspiration from her playing. He said: “I came upon that record in the 1960s. . . . 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.” In an interview for the Morganton newspaper, Tim Duffy, who worked with Mrs. Baker through his Music Maker Relief Foundation, said: “She was strong, warm, witty, gentle; a gardener and also the world’s premier Piedmont-style blues guitarist. Like B.B. King and single-string blues, anybody who has picked up acoustic finger-style guitar has been influenced by Etta whether they know it or not.”
Recalling Etta Baker’s attitude toward performing, Wayne Martin, of the North Carolina Arts Council’s Folklife Program, added: “Her main motivation for playing was not to bring attention to herself—even though her artistry certainly merited attention—but rather to share a love of music and to connect with people through her guitar and banjo.” Martin has played guitar and fiddle informally with Mrs. Baker for a number of years. This past year she no longer had the strength to play guitar, concentrating instead on the banjo. She could still play well a month ago, according to Martin, who plays fiddle on her banjo collection coming out next year.
Typically Mrs. Baker was engaged in a caretaking role when she passed away—she had been visiting a daughter in Fairfax, Virginia who had suffered a stroke. “She just had to go, she just had to see my sister,” said Darlene Davis, another of Etta’s daughters. “She was a great mother and a tower of strength for the family. We always looked up to her."