Monday, April 13, 2020

Piedmont Picking: Blues Not Doleful In Etta Baker's Hands

By BRUCE HENDERSON - The Charlotte Observer, December 27, 1988

"I dream music. I hear chords in my sleep." — Etta Baker 

"I say they (the blues) make me feel good. It's supposed to be based on somebody's sadness, but aren't you glad it's somebody else's and not yours?" - Etta Baker

They call the music she coaxes from her six-string acoustic guitar the Piedmont blues, but to Etta Baker it is the language of joy and remembrance. 

It sounds that way, too, as she lightly picks out the melody of "Dew Drops," the first tune she can remember her daddy playing more than 70 years ago in the Caldwell County foothills. 

"A-many mornings I've been awakened by my daddy's banjo, and the smell of ham cooking and apples frying," she said last week. "And it was impossible to lay in bed when I smelled all that good food, and my daddy playing. 

"It's just been a wonderful life, as far back as I can remember." 

Folklorists regard Baker, at 75, as one of the finest guitarists in the two-finger picking style that characterizes the Piedmont blues. On Jan. 18 in Raleigh, she and seven other masters of traditional arts will be honored as the first recipients of the N.C. Folk Heritage Award from the N.C. Arts Council, worth $2,000 apiece. 

After 23 years of work at a Morganton textile mill, she now performs at festivals nationwide, including JazzCharlotte. 

Baker has no formal music training, nor can she read music. But, she said from her small frame house under a spreading magnolia tree, "I dream music. I hear chords in my sleep." 

Born in the Johns River community of Caldwell County, where her father hunted and farmed for a living, she grew up near Richmond as the last of eight children. The family, which later returned to North Carolina, had black, Cherokee and Irish and musical — bloodlines. 

Boone Reid, her father, played banjo, fiddle, and guitar: her mother played harmonica and Jew's harp. Her brothers and sister also played the eclectic mix of traditional mountain tunes and popular music in their racially mixed community, at corn shuckings and house parties where music was sometimes made all night. 

"I've seen my daddy dance, and he was a tall man, but so light on his feet that you could barely hear him on the floor," she said. 

Before age 3, she was plucking out notes on a small guitar as it lay flat across her lap. It was during the family's time in Virginia that she first heard "the most sweetest music" — the blues. 

"I've had people ask me how the blues make me feel, and I say they make me feel good," she said. "It's supposed to be based on somebody's sadness, but aren't you glad it's somebody else's and not yours?" 

She's known now for her inventive performances and the delicate picking style she developed. 

"I make myself play every day about one hour and 45 minutes," she said. "If I make a sound that doesn't sound just right, I'll do it all over again. I just want to get to the point where I can tell myself, 'Etta, you can play.' 

"But I'm not there yet. I'm working on it, though." 

Baker was first recorded in 1956 for the influential album "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians" and two years later left the mill for music. 

She sometimes plays with her sister, guitarist Cora Phillips, as they did during the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. The pair won the N.C. Folklore Society's Brown-Hudson Award for contributions to folk arts that year. 

It was at the fair that she composed her lively "Knoxville Rag," the result of those chords that come to her in bed. 

Her nine children, of whom eight survive, continue the family's musical tradition on piano and guitar. Daughter Darlene often accompanies her on festival trips, she said, while Dorothy has a beautiful singing voice. Baker rarely sings. 

As she tends her garden and her zebra finches at home, the music of Boone Reid haunts her still. She got a banjo a year ago and a fiddle this month and is teaching herself to play them, too. 

"I lay. in bed sometimes," she said, "and think back to how Daddy made it sound." 

No comments:

Post a Comment