Category: Artist Information

Profile: Piedmont Blues Legend Etta Baker

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.

About the Author

Shameika Rhymes
Shameika Rhymes

Shameika Rhymes is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and has written for outlets like ET Online, ESSENCE, EBONY Magazine,,,, and her own website, Follow her on Twitter @Mofochronicles @WriterShameika

An Interview with Franklin Willis

Recently we interviewed Franklin Willis, music educator, vocalist, and education consultant. Willis, who performed twice as a part of our Emerging Artist Series at Sips & Stanzas, spoke candidly about the landscape of African American music, the importance of music education and what the museum will mean to our culture.

Describe your background. How were you introduced to the music world?

I was introduced to music at a young age while singing in the youth choir at Temple Church (Nashville, TN), performing in school talent shows, family reunions or any opportunity I was given to showcase my singing ability. I received my formal musical studies at Nashville School of the Arts (NSA) and was exposed to a variety of music genres and performance opportunities. While in the madrigal choir at NSA, I discovered my passion and joy for singing; upon graduating, I attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on a vocal scholarship. During my matriculation, I had the opportunity to sing at several community gatherings and functions, including serving as a vocal soloist with the Chattanooga Preservation of African American Song, a community vocal ensemble whose mission is to revitalize the history of music composed by African Americans. I then transferred to the University of Memphis to complete the Bachelor of Music in Vocal Music Education.

For the past nine years when I’m not on the stage singing, I am preparing our future singers, musicians, and songwriters in the classroom as a music educator. I currently serve as the music teacher at Andrew Jackson Elementary School (Metro Nashville Public Schools). My specialty is embedding musical instruction that will empower and engage all children to achieve their best.

How has music influenced your life?

It is the one constant in my life. It’s what can connect me to a person without speaking. It serves as a soother, wakeup call, or even a celebration. I couldn’t imagine a world without music.

How has the landscape of African American music changed over the years?

In my opinion, African American music has always helped shape and describe what’s going on in current events. From Negro spirituals to Hip Hop music. Our music tells a story. Sometimes a story of pain, hard times, trials, or even times of rejoicing, celebration, or a shout of praise. Our music will always adapt and change to tell the story.

Why is music education important?

Music Education Is important because music is something that reaches across all cultures. Music connects people that have the most and the least in common. Because of that music education is important so that the conversation and creativity continues. I believe that the study of music is a unique creative experience that provides opportunities to reinforce skills and concepts of other disciplines while developing lifelong learning skills. I am passionate that the cultivation of musicianship begins at a young age and that every child has musical potential.

You were a part of NMAAM’s Emerging Artist Series at Sips and Stanzas. What was that experience like?

For me, this was an amazing opportunity to share my gift with others. Art is unique in that it can be interpreted differently from one person to the next. I enjoy creating experiences for an audience through my artistic expression. The way I feel when I perform and my interpretation of the material affects how a member of the audience interprets it and shares with another and so on. The best thing is that a group of people can all hear the same thing and have several different or alike interpretations. That’s what is so great about music! So, to be featured as an emerging artist and to be able to share my talents and create a unique experience for a group of people was FUN!

What will a museum like NMAAM mean to the city of Nashville?

The Museum will serve as a resource for learning. A place to store information and preserve history. It will be a place where visitors to the city can see firsthand the love of art and how important it is in the local culture. Also, how African Americans have contributed to not only American culture but to the world culture.

Fill in the blank: My music matters….because it does the talking when words don’t make sense.

How can people learn more about you?

Twitter and Instagram @fwillismusic and my website:

Profile: The Sensational Nightingales

When mentioning traditional southern black gospel music, you can’t leave out North Carolina based gospel quartet The Sensational Nightingales. The group is one of the earliest gospel quartets. The group was founded as The Nightingales in 1942 by Barney Parks in Philadelphia. Parks was previously with the Dixie Hummingbirds. The original Nightingales line up included Howard Carroll, Paul Owens, Ben Joiner, and William Henry. They recorded several sides for Decca Records.

In 1946, Parked discovered a singer named Julius “June” Cheeks who had a soulful filled voice that evoked the emotion of a preacher. His vocals punctuated with high falsettos to raspy growls, he could carry the audience on an emotional musical religious journey. Cheeks style has been said to have been borrowed by artists like Bobby Bland and Wilson Pickett. Cheeks was influenced by the likes of groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Fairfield Four, and the Soul Stirrers. Cheeks was singing with a quartet called the Baronets in South Carolina when he was approached to join the new line up of The Nightingales. That new group led by Parks consisted of Cheeks, Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace, and Carl Coates.

The Nightingales rehearsed for a month in Goldsboro, North Carolina before their first appearances and since they were so sensational, they added the moniker to their name to become The Sensational Nightingales.

The group signed with Peacock Records and released their first single, “Will He Welcome Me There” in 1947. During the ’50s their hits included “New Burying Ground,” “Somewhere to Lay My Head,” and “See How They Done My Lord.”


Over the years, Cheeks would leave and return to the group until 1960 when he left to form his own group The Knights. The Sensational Nightingales added Charles Johnson to the roster to sing lead until the mid-80s, when he was replaced by Calvert McNair. The group is often referred to as “The Gentlemen of Song” for the way they carry themselves while singing soul stirring quartet harmonies.


The current line-up of The Sensational Nightingales consists of 91-year-old Joseph “Jo Jo” Wallace, Larry Moore, Horace “Sug” Thompson, and Darrell Luster, and they are still actively performing.

In October 2017, the group was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame for their contributions to the music industry.

About the Author

Shameika Rhymes
Shameika Rhymes

Shameika Rhymes is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and has written for outlets like ET Online, ESSENCE, EBONY Magazine,,,, and her own website, Follow her on Twitter @Mofochronicles @WriterShameika