- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

MORGANTON, N.C. (AP) — Etta Baker, an influential blues guitarist who recorded with Taj Mahal and was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, died Sept. 24 in Fairfax, Va., while visiting a daughter who had suffered a stroke, family and friends said. She was 93.

“She just had to go [to Virginia]; she just had to see my sister,” said Darlene Davis, another daughter who lives next door to Mrs. Baker in Morganton. “She was a great mother and a tower of strength for the family. We always looked up to her.”

Raised in a musical family in western North Carolina, Mrs. Baker made her first mark in music in 1956, when she appeared on a compilation album called “Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians.”

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

Mrs. Baker became a hit on the international folk-festival circuit, playing Piedmont blues, a mix of clattery rhythms of bluegrass as well as blues.

Mr. Mahal, who recorded an album with Mrs. Baker in 2004, was among those who found inspiration from her rhythmic fingerpicking.

“I came upon that record in the ‘60s,” Mr. 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. I can’t even describe how deep that was for me, just beautiful stuff.”

Mrs. Baker also raised a family that eventually numbered nine children.

She also suffered great losses.

Her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1964. That year, she was in a 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.

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

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

“She embodied everything we love about the South,” said Tim Duffy, who worked with Miss Baker through his Music Maker Relief Foundation Inc.

“She was strong, warm, witty, gentle; a gardener and also the world’s premier Piedmont-style blues guitarist,” he said. “Like B.B. King and single-string blues, anybody who has picked up acoustic finger-style guitar has been influenced by Etta, whether they know it or not.”

Ursula Epstein, 76,retired schoolteacher

Ursula Herz Epstein, a former public school teacher in Montgomery County, died Sept. 4 at Sibley Memorial Hospital in the District of ovarian cancer. She was 76.

Mrs. Epstein was born in Berlin and fled to Bolivia in 1939.

While there, she met and married Jose David Epstein. The family moved to Bethesda in 1960 when Mr. Epstein took a job with the newly founded Inter-American Development Bank.

Mrs. Epstein was a math specialist at Westland Middle School in Bethesda and worked for Montgomery County Public Schools for more than 25 years.

She held a master’s degree in organizational development from George Washington University.

She served as president of the Association of Bolivian Women, a local organization dedicated to helping the poor in Bolivia.

Mrs. Epstein is survived by a son, Daniel Epstein of Potomac; two daughters, Gabriela Epstein Yonker of Rockville and Cecilia Epstein of Silver Spring; and four grandchildren.

Memorial donations can be made to the Jose Epstein scholarship fund at American University or to the Association of Bolivian Women.

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