Etta Baker - Fingerpicking the Piedmont Blues

When we first heard that Homespun Music had a new Etta Baker video out we couldn't wait to see and hear it. The folks at Homespun have been producing the finest quality music instruction materials for thirty years now, and we knew that they were just the right folks to capture the spirit of Etta Baker and her music. At $29.95 , the video is quite a bargain , and you'll be certain to listen many times. It truly is a "must have" addition to the blues and traditional music enthusiast's library. You can order the video (and lots of other great music stuff) directly from Homespun. They aren't on the web yet, but they've got one of those nifty toll-free numbers that works just fine for getting a catalog. Call them up at 1-800-338-2727

Etta BakerFew performers can rightfully lay claim to "living legend" status, but for Etta Baker there is no doubt about it. She's been playing the Piedmont blues for 80 years now, and she just keeps getting better. Her father taught her to play as a child, and through Etta we can step back in time and listen to the roots of traditional Southern Appalachian music. Etta first gained a widespread following among folk enthusiasts in the 50's as a result of her songs on the "Traditional Music of the Southern Appalachians," collection. Her relaxed and simple style are certainly a reflection of her familiarity with and love of the music she plays. She could easily be called "Queen" of the Piedmont blues, because she has a grace and graciousness rarely seen. Between Doc Watson and Etta Baker, North Carolinians have an incredible living history of the music of our region. We should consider ourselves most fortunate to be able to experience firsthand the music of these great performers.

Happy Traum of Homespun Music first learned of Etta when he purchased "Traditional Music of the Southern Appalachians," at a Greenwich Village yard sale in the early sixties. He eagerly transcribed two of the tunes for his first book. It must surely have been a thrill for him to come to North Carolina thirty years later to produce "The Fingerpicking Blues of Etta Baker" video. The video is both a wonderful conversation with a master performer and a very personal lesson in the intricacies of her stylings and improvisations. Wayne Martin is the host for the lesson, and his relaxed manner and keen eye are a good match with Etta's playing. He reaches into the song and picks out the tricky parts, and then gets Etta to tell a story and explain the music , both techincally for the player, and historically for the fan.

Etta's many stories are the real treasure in this video, and allow us a rare insight into her musical experiences. Etta's playing is the living memory of simpler times and the love of her dad. At 83 years young Etta has been playing since she was 3 years old, taking lessons only from her father. Her lifetime of music is inspired by her dad, "I know that this (music) must be the very thing that I must do," she said to herself as a youngster, and so she has been doing it ever since.

Through tales about her son's bands, and her daughter's loving gift of a now vintage Gibson Les Paul in the fifties, Etta weaves a wonderful spell over her audience. Wayne Martin does an equally wonderful job of drawing out the details, without ever causing Etta to break stride. Etta plays some incredible old tunes including Dew Drop, where she gives a lesson on the "rolling hand," and Bully of the Town, another classic Etta learned form her dad. Dew Drop is a 4-finger roll, one of the first pieces she learned. Also on the video is the first blues song Etta ever heard her dad play Carolina Breakdown, a song he picked up on a trip to Virginia.

Etta - Goin down the road...

Etta plays Carolina Breakdown right out, and the memories it stirs in her come cleanly through the music straight into the listener. With an elegant rolling style, solid bass rthym with simple highlights, and crisply fingered details, Carolina Breakdown is the classic Piedmont blues. Etta picks cleanly and firmly, smiling during a pause in the middle which she later tells us was her daddy's "rest spell" while he danced the "shifting sands." If you close your eyes you'll swear you can hear him dancing on a dusty wooden floor.

The Piedmont blues is an elegant rolling blues. Thumb on bass, melody from pointer, gently rolling. Etta goes through each song once at normal pace, then Wayne steps in and gets her to play through the details more slowly. Wayne really brings out excellent technique highlights and there is great camerawork. Split screen shots let you see both hands close-up in the intricate parts. Now I'm not a picker myself, but it is clear to me that there are plenty of detailed tips and tricks being shared. "That's fantastic," Wayne Martin says about one lick in particular, and Etta jumps right in with a story about swapping licks with Taj Mahal.

Etta's signature piece One Dime Blues is included as is its story. While stranded in West Virginia, a friend of hers started playing the song and had " money comin' from all directions." Surely from a time when a dime on the street corner could help a man get along. And the story about her daughter buying her a Gibson Les Paul is a very special moment. I can't wait to see her again so I can check out that fine guitar up close.

Given a choice, Etta sings On the Other Hand Baby. It is a tradional blues with Piedmont stylings, no flash just plenty of honesty and feeling. Facial Expressions, smiles, gentle swaying, all add to the song and draw you into Etta's very personal playing style. Then Wayne calls out for a little "boogie woogie," and Etta slips right into Brown's Boogie.

But the best part of the video is when Etta breaks out the slide and her dreadnaught and plays in "KC" tuning her incredible version of Goin' Down the Road. We gave the song a "Best of MerleFest Award" when we saw Etta there, and this version leaves nothing out. What an incredible artist Etta is. We are then treated to another song from "Traditional Music of the Southern Appalachian" , John Henry. Etta even tells of going down the tunnel where John Henry laid his hammer down and looking back at the little spot of light at the other end. And then she plays it as only a persons who has seen that place could play it. For a real treat check out Doc Watson's version of this song and compare the subtle differences in the styling of the mountain and Piedmont versions of this classic standard.

When the last song is played, Wayne thanks Etta and she replies, "Oh I have really really enjoyed it so much," So have we Etta, so have we.

I highly recommend this video for anyone interested in learning about Etta and the Piedmont blues. As they say in the Homespun catalog, " Etta's heartwarming stories will delight anyone who loves her music. You'll watch this video over and over - even if you don't play guitar. Pull up a chair ! Here's a rare chance to have a private sit-down with a much-revered traditional artist."

This video can be ordered directly from Homespun Music - try calling 1-800 338-2737. Or you can write to Homespun at [email protected]

We managed to round up a few other web resources related to Etta

For starters, check out her Rounder Records offerings - One Dime Blues is her first full album - unbelievable !

She doesn't have a biography on the Rounder site, but she also appears on Old Time Music on the Air

CDUniverse sells her new CD, and has a brief biography.

We'll being checking into the Archive of Appalchian Music ourselves, they have some incredible material in their archives, including interviews with Etta and Tony Rice.

The North Carolina Folklore Journal published at Appalachian State University has several issues with Etta related articles.

And of course there is our own NCNatural "Best Song at MerleFest '96 Award" link.

A very high quality web site is Old Time Music which has an article "What is Old Time Music," written by Steve Goldfield. There is also "What is Old Time Music" by Mark Humphrey which offers another explanation. There's plenty of great music stuff to browse through, and even pictures of the webmaster.

by: Nicholas Holshouser -