The Friday Fillip

Etta Baker died this week at the age of 93. Chances are you’ve never heard of her — and, which is more important — have never heard her. She was a mother of nine and a blues guitarist of the Piedmont style, who started recording in 1956 and didn’t stop playing music until her death. Her fingerpicking style influenced a great many guitarists throughout the sixties, including Taj Mahal, who recorded with her. The New York Times article on her gives you a decent overview.

I want you to listen to her, though. And fortunately a U.S. National Public Radio page has made three of her tunes available as Real streaming audio, among which is Railroad Bill, the first tune she recorded, I believe, and certainly one that’s been copied time and time again in the blues and folk world. You can hear her original recording and then the version of it that she and Taj Mahal did years later. Easier to get to, perhaps, is the lovely languid blues piece that accompanies a slide show of photos of her, on the site of the News & Observer out of North Carolina, her home state. A third source of her music is Pandora, a web-based “radio station” in which you tell the program what sort of music you like and it tries to program that sort of music for you. If you put in “Etta Baker” the first song they’ll give you will be one of hers. Clicking this link ought to put you right into the “Etta Baker channel,” though you may have to register.

Ms Baker’s gifts to me don’t stop with her music. In searching out what might be available about her on the web, I stumbled into Google Music. Introduced quietly over a year ago, Google Music is one of the Big G’s less… polished efforts, shall we say. Indeed, there’s no longer even a home page for it — though it seems that once it existed. The idea is that if Google senses you’re interested in music, particularly recorded music, it’ll kick up a box at the top of the results that lets you get into Google Music proper. This is less than wonderful, so I’ve rigged up a bookmarklet that allows you to search directly into Google Music; add it to your favourites. (It works with Firefox; haven’t tested it with IE, so let me know.)

And when you’re inside GM you’ll find a really valuable display of information. At the top there’s a link for the artist, followed by a link to the artist’s albums, and then a link to the “songs” on which the artist is featured. The top link lets you get to a page from which you can all up call of the tracks of all of the artists albums, each track name linked to basic information about the song, the lyrics, and a link to a place to buy it. Roam around. Explore Etta Baker. Listen…

Raiload Bill, Railroad Bill, He never work’ and I he never will. Ride… ride… ride…


  1. very nice, Simon. thanks for posting this. I can’t check this site out at work (wouldn’t be fair to the taxpayers who pay my tab), but you’ve made a good case for her and I can’t wait to check this out.