A master guitarist in Piedmont blues, Etta Baker learned an Appalachian style of fingerpicking from her father Boone Reid, who she sometimes played with at local dances. Music was a big part of her life with several family members playing instruments from the banjo to the jaw harp. Etta married Lee Baker in 1938, and they had nine children together.
In 1956, Etta and her husband met folksinger Paul Clayton who was impressed with Etta’s music. He made field recordings of her performing several tunes, including her signature “One Dime Blues,” and these were released on Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians, one of the first commercially released recordings of African American banjo music. Etta was one of the most represented artists on this album with five songs. She partnered with the Music Maker label in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and they helped her to get the rights back to her songs.
It was not until after her husband’s death in 1967 that she began to perform in public, and at the age of 60 she left her job at a textile mill and decided to pursue music full time. Etta’s repertoire included many traditional tunes, but she also wrote her own songs, including “Knoxville Rag” and “Broken-Hearted Blues.” Her guitar-picking style has influenced musicians like Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan. In 1989 Etta was honored with a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, and she received a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1991.