Women's History Commentary: Growing Up With Etta

By Natalie Ross, DLA Small Business Programs

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During Women’s History Month, I thought it would be fitting to introduce my hometown hero, a musical pioneer and my grandmother, Etta Baker. Because of the type of music and the time in which she lived, she was not well known except in blues circles. However, she eventually received national recognition for her innovative style.

My grandmother was known to us as Muddy (a nickname from her oldest grandchild) or Mother, but she was a local celebrity in Morganton, North Carolina, as its most famous resident besides the late Sen. Sam Ervin (chair of the Senate Watergate Committee).

Well known in the blues/Piedmont blues circuit, Mother was famous for her three-finger picking style. She played the guitar, the mandolin and the banjo. People came from all over to watch her play, hoping to emulate her playing style and pick up a few pointers.

Mother learned to play by watching her dad, Madison Boone Reid. He would lay the guitar across her lap and teach her chords. Her fingers were so tiny that she played the guitar like a piano, stretching and straining her fingers so that they struck the chords rapidly, creating an echo of sorts that made it sound like multiple instruments playing at once. She received a National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellowship in 1991 in recognition of her musical gift.

My grandmother eventually played with Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan and B.B. King, but she didn’t play professionally until her 50s, after my grandfather, who was jealous and didn’t want her to pursue a musical career, had passed away.

She started simply, playing familiar songs with her sister Cora (an accomplished and published musician) at colleges and state fairs. They recorded their first album in the ‘50s. This album facilitated her introduction to Bob Dylan and to the world of Piedmont blues. Mother was considered one of the finest Piedmont blues musicians ever. More about her music be found online at Music Maker Records.

Mother would pull out her guitar when we arrived at her home, no matter what time of the morning or night and she would play a few songs. She encouraged us to “clog” to some of the more lively songs like “Carolina Breakdown,” and she taught us a few that we probably couldn’t and shouldn’t understand the meaning of at that age, like “Me & My Dony.”

She was a beautiful person with a larger-than-life personality. Fun loving and with a sharp tongue, she was much loved and revered.  Mother was a storyteller at heart, whether through her music or sitting in her living room. Some of her favorite stories were about her brothers, Jay and Robert.

They loved to play tricks on her. Once, for her birthday, she received a special cap. She loved the little tweed hawkbill and enjoyed showing it off to the other children. One of the brothers dared her to hit the cap with an axe. Never one to dismiss a challenge, Etta struck the cap with the axe, dead center. “I bet you won’t do it again,” her brothers screamed. Unfortunately, Etta whacked that cap until it was in shreds. It wasn’t until after her own mother scolded her that she realized, those brothers had encouraged her to destroy her birthday gift.

Mother canned her own vegetables, grown in her garden, which she maintained until she was 91. She made the most beautiful apricot wine, which she shared with a select group of friends and family. She worked on her roof until she was 89, when the family forbade her to crawl up there to make repairs. She loved fast cars and beer; she had three cataract surgeries to make sure she maintained her driver’s license well into her 80s.

Her family was a great source of pride, but her greatest joy was her music. She would practice chords until her fingers were stripped and scarred, but still she played.  She often complained that when she could not or did not play, she felt physically ill. The music fed her spirit and her soul.

In 2006, when she became ill visiting my mom, my greatest fear was that she wouldn’t make it back home to Bracket Street, back to her little house and her guitars and instruments. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it back. She died in a hospital far from home, far from all of the things that were familiar. Our only consolation was that she died surrounded by family, people who loved and revered her. People who appreciated her contributions to their lives, to the world of music, to black history and to the history of women in America.

In May, Morganton will honor Mother with a statue, and our family will travel to North Carolina for the dedication. The trip will be bittersweet; my own mother won’t be there to see the day, but we will make sure Mother is not forgotten — that her legacy of music, family and fun lives on.

Ross, a grants officer with the Procurement Technical Assistance Program in the DLA Small Business Programs Office, is on a rotational assignment to the Director’s Staff Group.