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Etta Baker, 93, guitarist known for playing Piedmont blues

MORGANTON, N.C. -- Etta Baker, an influential blues guitarist who recorded with Taj Mahal and received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, died Sept. 23, her family said. She was 93.

No cause of death was given, but her health had been failing for years, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported on its website.

Ms. Baker died in Fairfax, Va., while visiting a daughter who had suffered a stroke.

``She just had to go; she just had to see my sister," said Darlene Davis, another daughter. ``She was a great mother and a tower of strength for the family. We always looked up to her."

Ms. Baker was raised in a musical family in western North Carolina. She made her first mark in music in 1956, when she appeared on a compilation album called ``Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians." The recording influenced the growing folk revival, especially her versions of ``Railroad Bill" and ``One-Dime Blues."

She worked for 26 years at a textile mill in Morganton, before quitting at age 60 to pursue a career as a professional musician.

Ms. Baker became a hit on the international folk-festival circuit, playing Piedmont blues, a mix of the clattery rhythms of bluegrass and blues. She won a 1991 Folk Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mahal, who recorded an album with Ms. Baker in 2004, was among those who found inspiration from her rhythmic finger-picking.

``I came upon that record in the '60s," Mahal said. ``It didn't have any pictures, so I had no idea who she was until I got to meet her years later. But man, that chord in `Railroad Bill,' that was just the chord. It just cut right through me. "

Outside her musical career, Ms. Baker raised nine children. She also suffered great losses.

Her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1964. That same year she was in a serious car accident that killed one of her grandsons. In the span of a month in 1967, her husband died, and one of her sons was killed in the Vietnam War.

Ms. Baker toured well into her 80s, but finally quit because of heart problems.

This year she no longer had the strength to play guitar, so she focused on the banjo. She could still play well a month ago, said Wayne Martin, who plays fiddle on her banjo collection coming out next year.

``She embodied everything we love about the South," said Tim Duffy, who worked with Ms. Baker through his Music Maker Relief Foundation.

``She was strong, warm, witty, gentle, a gardener, and also the world's premiere Piedmont-style blues guitarist," he said.

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