The story of blues guitar in the USA has long been one dominated by black male artists. Only in more recent years has there been a gradual rediscovery of women's role and the contribution they made to developing American music.
On the weekend of the 12th /13th May 1962 Bob Dylan drove from New York down to Virginia to celebrate his twenty-first birthday the following Monday. Alongside him, was his new girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, later to feature on the cover of 'The Freewhelin Bob Dylan'. Two years his junior, she was immersed in radical politics and having a significant influence on the infatuated Dylan's musical direction. Ahead of them for the weekend lay the cabin of his friend, and folk song collector, Paul Clayton.
Dylan had recently released his first album, modestly entitled ‘Bob Dylan’. Comprising a re-working of existing folk tunes and two original pieces, it was a flop, with executives at Columbia Music describing Dylan as “Hammond’s Folly.” after the man who had signed him. Consequently, Dylan was on the lookout for new material. Clayton introduced his friend to a local North Carolinian, Etta Baker, whom Clayton already knew.
Dylan later copied her Piedmont blues guitar style, nicked most of the words from a song that Clayton had adapted and released two years earlier called ‘Whose Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone’ before turning both words and music into his own classic, ‘Dont Think Twice it's Alright.’ Dylan of course, went on to achieve long term stardom and acclaim, Clayton, after an attempt at suing Dylan, committed suicide at the age of thirty five when he deliberately dropped an electric fire into his bath, and Etta Baker? Well hers is another story.
Baker was already 49 years old when she met Dylan. Born in 1913, she was the youngest of eight children, of African, native American and Irish descent. Her father, Boone Reid, himself heavily steeped in southern musical traditions, started to teach his daughter to play guitar and banjo from the age of three. Unable to read music she learnt by watching and listening, for example seeing her father on slide guitar using the broken neck of a whisky bottle to play cords.
“I was so tiny when I started playing I would stand between my daddies knees and beg him to get his guitar. He would lay it on the bed for me and I would stand up by the bed and play just three frets down. When I made a good cord he would holler ‘That's my girl’.” Southern Oral History program
Although Boone Reid clearly recognised his daughters talent, in rural Virginia, musical opportunities were more for the family and playing at local events, rather than seeking national fame and fortune. “At home at night after supper we had music. My cousins played and an aunt and daddies brother as well as us. I played violin, guitar and banjo. Sometimes we wouldn't go to bed till three o clock in the morning but I think music helped to make us a happy family," said Baker (SOH as above).
For Etta musical opportunity became even more limited when at the age of twenty-three she got married to Lee Baker, a man sixteen years older than her. Instead of pursuing a musical career she stayed at home bringing up her nine children. She later said
“My husband could play piano real well, I believe we could have made it, but as he did not want to leave home, there was nothing I could say." Music Maker
Despite the limitations of child rearing Baker continued to practice and came to attention in 1956 when Clayton stumbled across her music. He included five solo guitar pieces as part of his album Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians. Baker received no money for her inclusion.
Although she went to work in a local factory, when her children grew up, Baker still nursed ambitions of a musical career. “I worked at the Buster Brown plant for about 26 years and there was a man came down from Portland Oregon and he said you oughta pick up your guitar and quit work. Well I thought about that was on a Wednesday and Friday I quit. Went to the office and told them I was quitin’. And I did. And I’ve enjoyed every day since.” (MM as above)
However, it wasn't until she was in her seventies, long after her husband had died, that she recorded on her own and then later with long time admirer, Taj Mahal. With the help of the Music Maker Foundation concert tours followed as well as a number of musical awards.
Etta Baker continued to record and play into her eighties and nineties, until, at the age of ninety three, she died whilst visiting one of her daughters, who’d suffered a stroke. Despite only receiving recognition of her abilities as a blues guitar player late in life, when you listen to her, there is no sense of bitterness in her voice about missed opportunities. Instead she talks only of the pleasure she took from playing.
“Music pays off good. It gets on your mind more than your ailments do I think. I get a lot of happiness in it. ”