Etta Baker (1913-2006) is a North Carolina legend of Piedmont guitar. She came to the style honestly, through generations of musicians in her family. Etta was a spry 91 when I visited her home in Morganton, North Carolina, for our interview. I was accompanied by Tim Duffy from The Musicmaker Relief Foundation (www.musicmaker.org)—a nonprofit that helps raise money and awareness to support Southern American roots musicians. Etta, who had been working in her garden since dawn, welcomed us in, and we stayed for hours, drinking sweet tea and talking about life and music. After a while, we jammed together, and I was astonished by her down-home, traditional Piedmont guitar style and her technical ability—which was still amazing at such a vintage age.
Who taught you to play?
My dad taught me, and his daddy taught him. My granddaddy played, too.
Was it all the same kind of music?
Yes. I love other people’s music, but I just stick with the way my dad and granddad played.
What did they call that style of music when you were growing up?
They called it country music. My daddy never played any blues until I was three years old and we moved to Chase City, Virginia. Down there, the people had parties, and played blues, and they taught daddy. That’s how blues got into daddy’s family.
When did you start writing your own songs?
It started with “The Knoxville Rag.” I dreamed the chords for that. I put the little pieces together. It was quarter to three. I went out on the porch. This was in Knoxville. Everybody in the building was fast asleep. I got up, and I stole my sister’s guitar from under her bed, and I went out on the porch by myself—just putting my dream together. I was in my early 50s then.
I was told your husband didn’t want you playing out.
He didn’t like to travel, so I just played here at home, and I worked at the textile place. I worked at Buster Brown’s for over 25 years. I would play at night. I wanted to go out to play, but Lee would say no, and I would just settle down. When he passed away in 1967, Stephan Michaelson asked me why I was working so hard. He told me I ought to just pick up my guitar. That was on a Wednesday, and, on Friday, I quit my job. Then, Mr. Joe Wilson came by, and he took me to Winston-Salem, and I played with Guitar Slim [James “Guitar Slim” Stevens from Greensboro—not the Guitar Slim from New Orleans]. That was my first trip away from home. I played guitar and Slim played the piano.
You know, when I played with Slim, the look he had on his face, I asked myself, “Why in the world did they ask me to play with him?” Lord, he was so out of humor. He looked around at me with this look that said, “Who is she to think she can play with me?” I made a poem about that:
I played in Winston, I played in Statesville
The guy I played with, he acted mighty hateful
He looked around as if to say
Who is that, think she can play with me?
I hit a note high and sweet
He said, “You know, that makes me want to get on my feet.”
On down towards the shows end
I couldn’t have met a nicer friend
So he was all right after he heard you?
Yeah. He was so nice after. He got to telling me about his pretty home. He got in a good humor. But, at first, he had the awful-est look on his face when he looked around at me—like he couldn’t believe it. Now, I like playing with Slim. We played together at Merlefest.
For more information on Sue Foley, click to her website (suefoley.com), or check out her latest CD, The Ice Queen.