Etta Baker

Etta Baker (1913–2006) was taught to play guitar by her father at the age of three. Baker is admired by thousands for her finger-picked style of blues guitar playing.

I was born in Caldwell County, west of Lenoir. That was in nineteen and thirteen. My daddy was Madison Boone Reid. He was Indian and Irish. Cherokee. My mother was Sarah Sally Wilson. I’ve had people ask me, “What nationality are you?” I say, “I’m so mixed up, if I ever find out, I’ll let you know.”

When I was almost three, my daddy decided he’d move to east Virginia. So we went down there. Then when I was fourteen my dad moved back to his father’s place on John’s River in Caldwell County. And there is where I spent the most of my time, until I was twenty-three years old. It was a community that seemed like one big family. Back then they’d dance, play music, have a good time. They’d break long enough for dinner and then they’d go right back into playing again. It would be at my daddy’s house one night, and then the next night it would be at one of his friends’. It was a wonderful, wonderful life.

Daddy and his brothers, they all learned guitar. My mother played the harmonica. They played mostly what they call country music, but when we moved to Virginia, Dad started hearing those blues musicians down there. They taught blues to my daddy, and then my daddy taught me. That’s the way blues got into my family. A lot of people nowadays hear records and different music and learn from that, but my family had their own way of playing and their own sounds.

Excerpted from the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina guidebook by Fred Fussell with Steve Kruger. Photo by Cedric N. Chatterley.