Etta Baker, 93, Finger-Picked the Blues

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The New York Sun

At age 60, Etta Baker, quit the Morganton textile mill where she’d worked for 26 years to become a professional musician.

Over the next 33 years, her style of Piedmont blues, a mix of clattery bluegrass and blues, made her a hit on the international folk-festival circuit, and earned her a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Baker, who died Saturday at 93, was raised in a musical family in North Carolina. She first made her mark in music in 1956, when she appeared on a compilation album called “Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians.” The recording was a landmark of the folk revival, especially her versions of “Railroad Bill” and “One-Dime Blues.”

Bluesman Taj Mahal, who recorded an album with Baker in 2004, was among those who found inspiration from her rhythmic finger-picking.

“I came upon that record in the ‘60s,” Mr. Mahal said. “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.”

Baker also raised a family that eventually numbered nine children. Baker toured well into her 80s.

This year she no longer had the strength to play guitar so she focused on playing banjo. She could still play great a month ago, said Wayne Martin, who plays fiddle on her banjo collection.

Baker also is to appear on blues-rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s next album due out in November.

“She was strong, warm, witty, gentle; a gardener and also the world’s premiere Piedmont-style blues guitarist,” Tim Duffy, who runs the Music Maker Relief Foundation, said. “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.”

The New York Sun

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