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Monday, September 25, 2006

Blues Icon Etta Baker dies at 93

Etta Baker is one of the first guitarists who's recordings taught me fingerpicking techniques. Her special and unique version of the old folk ballad "Railroad Bill" was one of my favourite songs when I was growing up and forming my musical tastes. She was also known for playing slide guitar with a pen knife - and her slide version of "John Henry" inspired me to start learning the art of slide guitar as well.
Bless her soul, may she rest in peace.

here is an obit article from Sept 25, 2006
in the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina:

Etta Baker's signature picking drew folks to music's down-home artistry

Etta Baker, who traded a job at a Morganton shoe factory to become a blues music legend, died Saturday in Fairfax, Va.

She was 93.

Baker's unusual two-fingered picking style on the guitar earned her a reputation as a master of the Piedmont blues, a resonant blend of bluegrass and blues that dates back more than a century in the mountains of N.C. and Tennessee. The self-taught musician from humble roots in Caldwell County influenced legions of musicians and crossed a variety of musical styles.

Baker's oldest child, Darlene Davis, said Sunday evening that her mother died Saturday afternoon, after traveling from her Morganton home to Fairfax, Va., to visit another daughter who requires dialysis. Davis said Baker's health had been declining since the late 1990s.

"Mother's been up and down for the past couple of years, but she felt like she needed to be there with my sister," Davis said.

Davis said family en route to Morganton and funeral arrangements hadn't yet been set.

"She embodied everything we love about the South," Tim Duffy, who worked with Baker through his Music Maker Relief Foundation, told the News & Observer of Raleigh.

Despite her age and health problems, Baker remained active in the music business. She played guitar on the most recent CD by blues-rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd that sold a million copies. She also recorded a CD of banjo music scheduled for release next year.

Beth Pollhammer, the founder of the Charlotte Blues Society, said Baker's music was a unique hybrid of white rural music and black music and her two-finger picking style was extremely unusual for the blues. She described Baker as an impeccable player and a phenomenal self-taught musician.

"So much of blues is a feeling. It's not a sound," Pollhammer said. "When people were moved by her playing, it was because of her life force and what she put into it, her soul, when she played.

"When she played, it was like she was talking. If you love the blues and you're listening that way, it's more of a feeling."

Pollhammer also said that Baker, in person, was charming.

"When you met her, it was just like you'd known her forever," Pollhammer said. "She was very sweet, very open. She was a beautiful woman, a beautiful spirit."

Baker was the product of a Caldwell County family and the daughter of "Medicine" Boone Reid, who played banjo, guitar, harmonica and violin in the N.C. foothills and mountains.

She learned to play guitar from her father but didn't become a full-time musician until she was in her 60s.

She raised nine children and was working at a shoe factory in Morganton in 1958 when she was approached by a professional musician and asked to change careers.

" `Etta, why don't you quit the Buster Brown plant and play music for a living?' " Baker recalled in an interview in June 2005, during Etta Baker Day festivities in Morganton. "This was on a Wednesday. I went in and told 'em I was quitting on Friday, and I did. I never did go back."

Baker's fame grew over the decades, and her versions of "One-Dime Blues" and "Railroad Bill" became classics.

Veteran blues musician Taj Mahal said Baker's guitar picking on "One-Dime Blues" was "beautiful stuff."

"It just cut right through me," he told the News & Observer. "I can't even describe how deep that was for me."

A CD containing "One-Dime Blues" helped her earn national recognition in 1991. She won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and also was awarded the Folk Heritage Award from the N.C. Arts Council.

During the years, she suffered the kinds of problems that would make a compelling blues song.

She was involved in a serious car accident in 1964 in which a grandson was killed. And in 1967, her husband died and a son was killed in the Vietnam War -- within a span of one month.

About a decade ago, she began losing the strength to play guitar. Rather than give up music and quit touring, however, she just changed instruments and took up the banjo.

Wayne Martin, a fiddle player on her upcoming CD, said Baker was still playing a month ago.

"I consider her to be one of the most important traditional artists of our lifetime," Martin told the News & Observer. "She touched hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people with her music.

"It's amazing that she raised nine kids, attending to their needs, then had a career that didn't even start until she was in her 60s."

Davis, Baker's daughter, said music was her mother's way of meeting other people. She loved meeting people on engagements in Europe or Texas, Davis said, because the music brought them together.

"She loved that, because she was able to bring happiness to other people through something she loved," Davis said.

Davis said her mother advised her to always be honest, to work for what she wanted, and to always be friendly, nice and respectful to others.

"She's loved by people all over the world," Davis said. "Everyone was welcome just to come and visit and be with her. She made them welcome."

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