Monday, July 18, 2011

Any Woman’s Blues #12 – Etta Baker

A happy Monday!  Sure hope you’re in the mood for some amazing guitar-playing, because that’s what we have in store on this month’s Any Woman’s Blues edition of the Monday Morning Blues.

This month’s featured artist, Etta Baker, is a musician who really should be much more widely known; her guitar playing is superb both in terms of technique & feeling, & no less of a musician than Taj Mahal claimed her playing was “the greatest influence” on his own. 

But there was only one recording of Etta Baker available thru much of her adult life, a field recording of her, her father & other family members that was released in 1956 as Instrumental Music From the Southern Appalachians.  Following this, Etta Baker didn’t put her guitar aside, but she didn’t pursue a musical career.  Instead, she raised nine children & worked in a textile mill in her native North Carolina.

But in 1991, she began a recording career that lasted until her death (at age 93) in 2006.  She issued One Dime Blues on Rounder, & followed this with in 1999 Railroad Bill on Music Maker.  Etta Baker’s final recording was a series of duets with Taj Mahal, also on Music Maker; Etta Baker & Taj Mahal was released in 2004.

I first encountered Etta Baker not on a compact disc but on a printed page, namely in Happy Traum’s Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar (Oak Publications) where he provides transcriptions of her versions of “Bully of the Town” & “John Henry.”  The latter is a slide piece played in open D.  Traum claims she played this using a knife blade as a slide on her Instrumental Music From the Southern Appalachians, & I assume he’s right; it was fairly common to use a knife as a slide in traditional blues playing.  You can see (& hear!) her playing an excerpt from “John Henry” as part of a Music Maker video here—I love her version of this old great old tune.  Later, I purchased One Dime Blues, & was wowed by what I heard; I’ve always held Etta Baker’s playing in high regard.

Ms. Baker plays what is called “Piedmont style,” a form of fingerpicking that owes a lot to old-time banjo playing styles (if you do watch the Music Maker video, you’ll notice that she only uses her right hand’s thumb & index finger, which was a common form of old-time banjo picking
& in fact Etta Baker also played the banjo.)  Other guitar players associated with this style are Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Elizabeth Cotton & Reverend Gary Davis.  In general, Piedmont style is associated with players from east coast states—Georgia, the Carolinas & Virginia—tho Mississippi John Hurt played in this style while living in the Mississippi delta.

Etta Baker’s recordings are virtually all instrumentals.  By the time she began her recording career in the 1990s, she was well into her 70s, & her voice was weak.  I don’t know if she sang much as a younger woman, but her guitar certainly always sang beautifully as she played!

Hope you enjoy the music from this extraordinarily gifted musician!


The photo leading off the post is from Wiki Commons, where it’s entitled “Etta Baker with acoustic guitar. Photo taken in the front yard of Etta Baker's home on Bracket Street in Morganton, North Carolina, United States.”  Photo is by Timothy Duffy of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, & is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


  1. Wonderful music which was - once I had listened to it - entirely different to what I had expected. There was a style and complexity that I had not expected. A great find.

  2. Ah, what a great way to start my day. Thanks, John.

  3. Hi Alan & Roy

    Alan: Yes, her fingerpicking style is quite intricate, especially when you consider she's doing it with just her thumb & index finger, a la old time banjo picking! Glad you enjoyed Etta Baker's music.

    Roy: She's just plain great! Thanks.

  4. love love love Etta - love Etta, did I say love? I mean love love.

  5. Loved it - I had never heard of her until this post, and I feel I should have.

  6. Hi Jhon & HKatz

    Jhon: Right on! Excellent guitar work.

    HKatz: Yes, Ms Baker absolutely should be better known. Glad I was able to introduce you to her work.


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