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Blueswoman Etta Baker

2011 June 23

Etta Baker, a black woman of slight build in glasses, jeans and a shirt standing in a garden with an acoustic guitarThere’s a fantastic feminist body of work devoted to recognising and celebrating the achievements (and even the existence of) women in blues music, not least the landmark Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis. Thanks to the toil of Davis and others, the songs and performances of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Victoria Spivey and Ma Rainey are finally taking their place in the notoriously masculine and misogynist blues canon. So I won’t reinvent the wheel – go read about them, learn about them, listen to them. Instead I thought I’d introduce a less well-known blueswoman, Etta Baker.

I say ‘less well-known’, what I mean is less familiar to the general public. Since she was ‘discovered’ in the 1950s (she was included on an album of field recordings of folk music, Instrumental Music from the Southern Appalachians , after a chance meeting with folk singer Paul Clayton) there have been plenty of tributes to her musicianship.  Bluesman Taj Mahal said she was the greatest influence on his guitar playing, and Bob Dylan went to visit her in 1962. When you listen to Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right (a rewrite of one of Clayton’s songs) I reckon you can hear Etta Baker’s influence quite clearly.

The album she recorded with her sister Cora Phillips in 2005, Carolina Breakdown, is casually incredible. Her astonishing skill is obvious, even to a cloth-eared listener like me. But it all seems very relaxed. I suppose that kind of confidence is what you get for playing the guitar for 90-odd years (she started learning when she was three…)

Here’s a radio interview with Etta Baker in 2005 and you can listen to some of her songs, see pictures and read more about her life on the Music Maker Relief website. Baker has none of the tragic glamour of Billie Holiday or the stature of Bessie Smith. When you see pictures of her, she’s… well, she’s a little old lady.  She’s usually grinning, wearing ill-fitting sweaters, and with the same owl-like glasses that the Queen wears. The admiration she has won is all down to how she played, and not how she looked.

She is not and never was a star. As well as playing the blues, she raised nine children and worked for 26 years in a local factory. Susan Simone of Music Maker Relief puts this in context:

Listening to Baker’s talent, the first question that comes to mind is why didn’t she get onto the stage earlier. To understand this, you need to understand how life was in the Carolinas for people who were living a hardscrabble life of farming and mill work. Opportunities for music were local not national. Skilled musicians played with family, for local dances, at church, or may be in a nearby town…. “My husband could play piano real well,” Baker reflects. “I believe we could have made it, but as he did not want to leave home, there was nothing I could say.”

Performing on stage or to large audiences is of course no measure of talent, or even of influence. And in interviews Baker herself didn’t seem to have any regrets. But when I hear her and her sister play I can’t help but wonder about all the other ordinary extraordinary women we’ll never know about.


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