Etta Baker was a master of the blues guitar style that became popular in the southern piedmont after the turn of the century. She was raised in the foothills of Caldwell County where music was central in the lives of her family and friends. Both parents played several instruments, and she began picking the guitar at the age of three. “I was so small, I had to lay the guitar on the bed, stand on the floor and play the neck,” she recalled. Her seven brothers and sisters already played some instruments, and soon she was making music alongside them at community entertainments and corn shuckings.
Baker played six- and twelve-string guitars. She rarely sang, preferring to let the instrument speak for her. Like most traditional artists, she played music for personal satisfaction and for the pleasure of friends and family. However, in 1956, her music was recorded on the influential album Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians, and in later years she made several other recordings.
In later life, Baker carried her music far beyond the borders of Caldwell County. She performed at the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Virginia, the 1984 World’s Fair in Knoxville, the Kent State Folk Festival, and the Augusta Heritage Festival.
Baker and her husband Lee raised nine children, many of whom carry on the family musical tradition. In addition to her duties as a mother, Etta Baker worked for more than twenty years at the Skyline Textile Company.
With her sister Cora Phillips, Baker received the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award, and in 1989 she was a recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award. In 1991, she was honored with the National Heritage Award.