Etta Baker
The Woman
Etta Baker’s story illustrates the quality of the country blues players that were, and still are, unheard of but plucking away in the backwoods of the United States.
Born Etta Lucille Reid on March 31, 1913, Etta lived her entire life in the Appalachian Mountains region of North Carolina. Growing up in Caldwell county on the east side of the mountains, Etta was one of 8 children of a musical family. Her father, Boone Reid, was an accomplished Piedmont and Ragtime player over multiple instruments who was taught the banjo by his father, and started Etta on the guitar at age 3. She recalled being too small to hold the instrument, placing it on a bed and copying the chord fingerings her father showed her. He was the only teacher she ever had.
She took up the piano, banjo and violin and regularly performed at local dances and parties with her father and sister, Cora. She met local pianist Lee Baker at a dances after a corn shucking and after a 6 year courtship they married in 1936. They moved to the one big town in Caldwell County, Lenoir, where Lee worked as a mechanic and Etta continued to perform as often as she could despite raising 9 children.
They moved to Morganton in neighbouring Burke County to give the children access to better schooling in the mid 1940s where Lee took a job in a factory and Etta started at the local textile mill. Pressures of work and family made it too difficult to continue playing in public, but she played in the evenings teaching her children the family version of Piedmont as she had been taught by her father and he by his father.
Vacationing in Blowing Rock, a town some 30 miles from their home in 1956, Lee and Etta had a chance meeting with Paul Clayton, a folk guitarist in the process of touring the country making recordings of country musicians. At the urging of Lee, she performed her own version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Dime Blues” on Clayton’s guitar. A week later and Clayton recorded her, Boone, Cora and Cora’s husband Theopolis ‘The’ Phillips. The next year the recordings, including 5 from Etta, were released on the album “Instrumental Music Of The Southern Appalachians” which introduced Etta’s style to an urban audience, including the young musicians Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal – who would later say “one of the signature chords of my guitar vocabulary comes from her version of Railroad Bill. This was the first guitar picking style that I ever learned.”
In 1963 Lee suffered a stroke and Etta cared for him full time until his death in 1967, the same year that one of her sons was killed in the Vietnam War. She was recorded again for the album “Music from the Hills of Caldwell County” in 1972 that also featured Cora, ‘The’ Phillips, her cousin ‘Babe’ Reid and her husband Fred Reid. This reminded Etta of her love of music, and the next year, at age 59, she quit her job at the mill to pursue music full time – “one day I just got to thinking about it. It was time to leave there and do something else.”
It took another 18 years for to release her first album at 77 years old, and she would release or was featured on another 5 albums, one with Taj Mahal and another with Cora. Her last recording was a version of ‘Knoxville Rag’ with Kenny Wayne Shepherd released on his 2006 album “10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads”. She was 93 years old, and the CD included a video of the pair playing in her kitchen.
Etta Baker died on September 23, 2006 in Fairfax, Virginia while visiting one of her daughters.

5 thoughts on “One Dime Blues

  1. Fantastic! Thank you for this site, the songs, and history of the music.

    Would love to see your breakdown of Etta’s ‘Careless Love’ arrangement.

  2. I grew up on the Tennessee side of Roan Mountain from where Etta Baker lived, but although I heard and loved mountain music during that time, the 50’s and 60’s, I didn’t know of her until I bought the album Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians in 1970. My wife bought me my first guitar in 1972, a used Yamaha, and although I had no one to teach me and not a lick of talent, I tried mightily to figure out One Dime Blues. Finally, I gave up and took the album, the guitar and my pride and went to the local guitar store and asked the clerk if he know how to play that song. He listened and shook his head. Way beyond him, he said. Then he said, wait a minute and went to the door of the store. He looked up and down the street and saw this drunk sitting on the curb a little ways down. Hey John, he called. John staggered down and the clerk asked him to listen to the song. John did for a minute then said give me the guitar. He said she is cross-picking in the key of C and began to play along with her. Played it like he had played it all his life. Well, I am still trying to play it well and still can’t. Seems that anyone who practices long enough and hard enough can play the guitar, only some of us are given the talent to play really well. You either got it or you don’t. Seems I don’t. John did.

    • Hi Thomas,

      What a great story! Etta is criminally underrated, every note she plays rings out true. I can play the song, but it’ll take a good 10 years to play it like she could. So smooth.

      Thanks for looking at the site!


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