STEVE BOUSER: Etta Baker: Little-Known Musical Treasure
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If I had three wishes, one of them would be to play guitar like Etta Baker, who died the other day at age 93.
I started to write that I would give my left arm to be blessed with that skill, but that would sort of defeat the purpose.
I first got into Etta's kind of music (I never got into it very deep, though I still strum a little now and then) in 1963, as I was finishing up three years in the U.S. Army with a stint at Fort Meade, Md. The folk music rage was cranking up, and my California-born roommate turned me on to it. I was soon driving him crazy trying to learn simple chords on my first guitar -- actually a four-string Silvertone baritone uke from Sears.
We used to listen to a local FM station that featured folk and blues every evening. I became so fascinated with the nightly instrumental theme song they used to kick off the program that I called the station to find out who and what it was.
I had assumed the musician was a man, so I was surprised when the DJ told me, "That's Etta Baker, playing 'Railroad Bill.'" When I asked who Etta Baker was, he didn't know much beyond the fact that she was "a colored lady from North Carolina." (I'd never set foot in this state at that point.)
I remember being surprised to learn that all that elaborate music was flowing forth from one person playing one instrument. I eventually bought a couple of Baker's albums. But that catchy "Railroad Bill" cut, an icon of Piedmont blues, remains a favorite of mine to this day -- along with her powerful, fast-moving rendition of "Freight Train." In Etta's elegantly homespun style of playing, the thumb beats out a steady, driving, rock-solid rhythm on the low strings while the fingers pick out sparkling melodies and harmonies in a way that seems at once awesomely precise and wonderfully free-floating.
A decade after my Army discharge, my path happened to cross Etta Baker's -- but only in the sense of ships passing in the night.
I spent six years as editor of the paper in Morganton, N.C., a terrific experience for somebody still in his thirties -- but one which, as it later developed, involved one of the great missed opportunities of my life. Only after I moved on did I learn, to my amazement, that Etta Baker, this virtuoso on a flat-top guitar, this musical heroine of my youth, had also lived in that same small Blue Ridge foothills town the whole time.
If I had known, I'm sure I would have been pestering her with regular pilgrimages to her front porch to hear her play -- and maybe even learn a thing or two at the feet of this modest master. That would have been something.
Raised in a musical family, Etta was born in Morganton and still lived there at the time of her death this past Sunday, though she died of a stroke while visiting a daughter (one of her nine children!) in Fairfax, Va. The fact that I was clueless that I had had her for a fellow townsperson for years is an indication of the relative obscurity from which she sprang -- and back into which she settled as the folk craze faded.
Though other guitarists from Bob Dylan to Taj Mahal acknowledged her influence and she was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, she didn't put out her first full CD until 1991. She held down a day job at a textile mill off and on for 50 years while pursuing a semi-professional music career.
This living legend toured well into her 80s -- still popular with devotees through the mountains of the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia -- before quitting because of heart problems.
She spent her last years devoting herself to her family and leaves behind an entire clan of eight children and about 60 children and grandchildren. (Her ninth child was killed in Vietnam during the same month in 1967 that her husband died of a stroke.)
Etta's passing makes me all the more regretful that I never met her. She was the real thing. The nature of the gifted, upright, humble and place-rooted life she led up there on the edge of the mountains somehow reminds me of an Old Testament prophetess. We need more like her in this day of Hollywood hype and instant, here-today, gone-tomorrow, computer-enhanced celebrity.
I think we may have lost an underappreciated national treasure in Etta Baker.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (910) 693-2470.
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