Influential blues guitarist Etta Baker was proof that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. She didn’t become a professional musician until she was 60 years old, and her technique influenced artists like Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan.
Etta Baker was born Etta Lucille Reid in North Carolina in 1913. Her father, Boone Reid, was a musician that taught her to play the six and twelve string guitars and the five-string banjo. Etta also learned how to play piano and violin. She grew up learning hymns, parlor music, rags, and Tin Pan Alley songs from her father. Etta often performed the blues with her father and sister at dances and parties in their community.
In 1936 Etta married Lee Baker and stopped performing publicly while raising their nine children.
Etta Baker’s unique playing style included her two- finger style of using her thumb and index finger which is prominent in Piedmont Blues. The Piedmont Blues features alternating the thumb picking the string bass while the fore finger picks the treble strings. She learned the finger picking style from her father, and in interviews she said it was a style that was used in the area where she was raised. In 1956, Etta and her father met folk singer Paul Clayton, where she played her signature song “One Dime Blues” for him. Clayton was so impressed that he showed up at her house the next day with a tape recorder and recorded Etta playing the song and several others. Her versions of “One Dime Blues” and “Railroad Bill” were featured on the album Instrumental Music from the Southern Appalachians.
1967 proved to be a tragic year as Baker lost her husband and a son, and she quit playing music for a while before turning back to it to help with her grief.
Bluesman Taj Mahal recorded an album with Baker in 2004 called Etta Baker with Taj Mahal. He spoke with the New York Times about how inspired he was by her picking style.
“I came upon that record in the ‘60s,” Taj 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.”
Baker worked at a North Carolina textile mill for 25 years before quitting to pursue a career as a professional musician. She released her first full album, One-Dime Blues in 1991 at the age of 78. “This man came down from Portland, Oregon and he said ‘Etta why would you work so hard, when you can pick up your guitar and make it easy. This was on Wednesday and I got to thinking about what he said and I went to the office and said I was quitting on Friday, and I did. I gave them three days notice,” Baker said in an interview with David Holt for UNC TV.
Baker couldn’t read music, but said she got her ideas for her songs through her dreams. “I dream a lot of my chords,” she said. Baker said it was like putting together a crossword puzzle to fit the chords together. She became a hit on the folk and blues festival circuit touring well into her 80’s but eventually stopped due to health problems. She died in 2006 at the age of 93.
Baker received multiple honors for her work. In 1989, Baker received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council. In 1991, she received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship, and in 2003, the North Carolina Award. She was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2017.