Week 7:
One Dime Blues

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. Moving to the one big town in Caldwell County, Lenoir, where Lee worked as a mechanic, 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.
The Song
One Dime Blues was Etta’s signature piece, a great example of the Piedmont style in standard tuning (though it’s a half step down in the 1956 recording) mainly using open chords. Like nearly all of her recordings it is an instrumental – she said her guitar would speak for her. She played it using the usual Piedmont style of thumb and index finger, and she plays the open E chord with just two fingers like a lot of early blues players do – using the ring finger to fret the A and D strings on the 2nd fret.
Typical of the Piedmont blues, it features a strong alternating bassline on the beat played with a bouncy feel and clean, quick melody lines. The melody features a lot of notes, and the key is to pick them cleanly and concentrate on the volume of each of them.
The structure of the song is straight forward – a 14 bar progression in A and E, with a repeated turnaround including B and C#7, repeated with a few licks thrown in in the last few bars of every repetition after the first. The turn around is unusual in that it drops half a bar – a six beat measure consisting of a quick sequence of 3 chords. The timing can throw you off at first.
Etta is a master of this style, and the song is really quite difficult to play. It’s quite fast, but she is so clean that each note rings out. The hammeroned minor to major 3rd in the E section adds drive to the rhythm. Practice, practice, practice!
The Intro
The intro jumps straight into the turnaround:
$6.0.$5.2.$4.2.$3.1.$2.0.$1.0 3/4 $3.4 | $5.2 $1.4 $3.4 $5.4.$1.0 $3.4 $5.0.$1.2 $3.0 $1.0 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.1.$2.0.$1.0 $6.0 $2.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $2.3 $6.0 $4.2 |
The Progression
The turnaround is played twice, and the second bar of it only contains two beats. The C#7 is played like an open position B7 moved up to the 4th fret, with the high E played open.
A / / E / E7 /
$5.0 $2.1/2 $3.2 $1.0 $5.0 $2.2 $3.2 $1.3 | $5.0 $1.2 $3.2 $1.0 $5.0 $2.2 $3.2 $2.0 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $2.3 $6.0 $4.2 |
A / / E / E7 /
$5.0 $2.1/2 $3.2 $1.0 $5.0 $2.2 $3.2 $1.3 | $5.0 $1.2 $3.2 $1.0 $5.0 $2.2 $3.2 $2.0 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $1.3/4 $6.0 $2.0 $3.4 |
B C#7 / A / E / E /
$5.2 $1.4 $3.4 $5.4.$1.0 $3.4 | $5.0.$1.2 $3.0 $1.0 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.1.$2.0.$1.0 $6.0 $2.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $1.3/4 $6.0 $2.0 $3.4 |
B C#7 / A / E / E /
$5.2 $1.4 $3.4 $5.4.$1.0 $3.4 | $5.0.$1.2 $3.0 $1.0 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 $6.0 $2.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $2.3 $6.0 $4.2 |
The Licks
At the end of the second repetition of the progression, Etta does this lick instead of the second turnaround in bars 11 and 12, then goes straight back to the start of the progression:
$6.0.$2./5 $1.4 $2.5 $1.4 $2.5 | $2.5 $1.7 $2.5 $1.4 $2.5 $2.5 |
In the next repetition, she changes the second turn around with a nice three note chromatic run in the bass:
$6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $1.3/4 $6.0 $2.0 $3.4 | $5.2 $1.4 $3.4 $5.4 5 6 | $6.0 $4.2 $2.2 $6.0.$2.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $2.3 $6.0 $4.2 |
The next time around, she does a longer variant of the first lick:
$6.0.$1.0 $2./5 $1.4 $2.5 $1.4 $2.5 | $2.5 $1.7 $2.5 $1.4 $2.5 | $2./7 $1.5 $2.7 $1.5 $2.7 | $2.7 $1.7 $2.7 $1.5 $2.7 | $2./9 $1.7 $2.9 $1.7 $2.9 | $2.9 $1.9 $2.9 $1.7 $2.9 |
Next time, it’s a quick variation:
$6.0.$1.0 $2./9 $1.7 | $2.9 $1.9 $2.9 $1.7 $2.9 |
Then it’s similar to the chromatic bass mini run, but she does it in the first turn around:
$6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $1.3/4 $6.0 $2.0 $3.4 | $5.2 $1.4 $3.4 $5.4 5 6 | $6.0 $4.2 $2.2 $6.0.$2.0 $3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $1.3/4 $6.0 $2.0 $3.4 |
$5.2 $1.4 $3.4 $5.4.$1.0 $3.4 $5.0.$1.2 $3.0 $1.0 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 $6.0 $2.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $2.3 $6.0 $4.2 |
Back to a longer variation of the first again to lead into the outro:
$2./9 $1.7 $2.9 $1.9 $2.9 $1.7 $1.0 $2.0 | $2./7 $1.5 $2.7 $1.7 $2.7 $1.5 $1.0 $2.0 | $2./5 $1.4 $2.5 $1.7 $2.5 $1.4 $1.0 $2.0 |
The Outro
The outro is pretty similar to the standard progression:
$5.0 $2.1/2 $3.2 $1.0 $5.0 $2.2 $3.2 $1.3 | $5.0 $1.2 $3.2 $1.0 $5.0 $2.2 $3.2 $2.0 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $2.3 $6.0 $4.2 |
$5.0 $2.1/2 $3.2 $1.0 $5.0 $2.2 $3.2 $1.3 | $5.0 $1.2 $3.2 $1.0 $5.0 $2.2 $3.2 $2.0 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 | $6.0.$1.0 $4.2 $1.3/4 $6.0 $2.0 $3.4 |
$5.2 $3.4 $5.4 5 6 | $6.0 $4.2.$3.0h1 $6.0.$2.2 $4.2.$2.0 | $6.0.$3.0h1 $4.2.$3.1.$1.0 ||