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Paving the Way

Paving the Way

DeFord Bailey and his harmonica cleared the path for black musicians in country music

Some musicians are born with great talent, and others have to hone their skills with years of practice. In the case of DeFord Bailey and his harmonica, it was a little bit of both.

Born the grandson of slaves in Smith County, Tennessee, DeFord’s beginnings were humble, to say the least. His mother died when he was one year old, and his father’s sister, Barbara Lou, began to care for him. Before long, she became his primary caregiver and foster mother. It was Barbara Lou who gave DeFord his first harmonica when he was as young as two years old.

According to DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music (University of Tennessee, 1993), DeFord once said,”My folks didn’t give me no rattler, they gave me a harp, and I ain’t been without one since.”

At the age of three, DeFord contracted polio, and it changed his life forever. Physically, his body was never the same: The disease severely stunted his growth and left him with a hunched back that never went away. The disease did, however, help him to form his playing style. During the year he spent confined to his bed recovering, he spent his time in bed listening to geese flying, dogs barking, wind blowing and the high lonesome sound of train whistles outside. As he could only move his head and his arms, he passed the time recreating those sounds with his harmonica.

After a year, DeFord was able to leave his bed and walk upright—and he was also able to partake in the family band. His grandfather, Lewis Bailey, was a champion fiddle player in Tennessee, and other members of his family knew their way around stringed instruments, too. The Bailey Family Band was comprised of banjoes, fiddles and mandolins played by DeFord’s grandfather, uncles and great uncles. The Baileys’ string band was a fixture at the Wilson County Fair every year.

In 1911, DeFord left Smith County to work as a houseboy for J.C. Bradford, a wealthy investment banker who lived in Nashville. DeFord started out running errands and doing household tasks for the Bradfords, but his role changed when Mrs. Bradford discovered his hidden talent for the mouth harp. Soon he became an entertainer for the family and their friends.

“One day I was in the yard and she heard me playing,” he said once in an interview. “She said, ‘I didn’t know you could play like that. How long have you been playing?’ I told her, ‘all my life,’ From then on she had me stand in the corner of the room and play my harp for her company. I’d wear a white coat, black leather tie, and white hat. I’d have a good shoeshine. That all suits me. That’s my make-up. I never did no more good work. My work was playing the harp.”

Later, DeFord worked as an elevator operator in the Hitchcock Building in downtown Nashville. One day, a secretary from the National Life and Accident Insurance Company heard him play, and invited him to entertain at one of the company’s formal dinners. Looking back on that moment, DeFord realized that it foreshadowed the things to come in his musical career.

On the Radio Waves

The 1920s ushered in the age of radio. On October 5, 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company created WSM. They hired George D. Hay, who was nicknamed “Judge Hay” as one of their announcers. Judge Hay loved folk music, and implemented a variety show called “The Barn Dance” that aired on Saturday nights. Judge Hay later changed the name of the show to The Grand Ole Opry.

Meanwhile the radio station WDAD also started in 1925. It was created by a radio supply store called Dad’s. The owner, Pop Exum, knew DeFord from an auto accessory store he owned before opening Dad’s. He remembered DeFord’s talent for the mouth harp, and recommended him to Humphrey Bate, whose band, The Possum Hunters were regular performers on WDAD and WSM. Dr. Bate insisted that DeFord join him and his band on The Barn Dance, and eventually DeFord agreed. Judge Hay was so impressed with DeFord’s playing that he asked him to become a regular performer on the show.

DeFord was a regular fixture on The Barn Dance until 1928, when he left WSM and moved to Knoxville to take a higher-paying job for the radio station WNOX. In 1929, he returned to WSM and the newly named Grand Ole Opry show, and he was able to negotiate a better salary.

Even with the pay raise, DeFord was in need of more money. He opened a barbecue and shoeshine stand, and rented out rooms in his home, but it wasn’t enough to support his wife, Ida Jones, and their three children. The only way for a country performer to make decent money was to go on tour. Problem was, WSM had hidden DeFord’s race from its listeners: Judge Hay was afraid that if Grand Ole Opry fans knew DeFord was black, they would stop tuning in.

Still, DeFord went on tour with other WSM musicians in 1933. By this time, he was one of the most popular Opry performers.

Roy Acuff himself knew that DeFord could always draw online poker player stats full tilt a crowd. He was one of the only African American performers of his time who was able to perform regularly and equally with other white performers. Also, he was able to perform for white audiences—another anomaly for an African American in his time. However, social rules and laws kept him from interacting with his white fans. He would stay away from other performers in hotels in the black section of each town he visited. If WSM could not find a safe hotel for him to stay in, he would sleep in the car. He also frequently ate in the kitchens of restaurants or in the car, away from his white counterparts.

Cutting Ties With the Opry

For 16 years, DeFord Bailey was a regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry. However, in the spring of 1941, everything changed. Licensing issues with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Performers (ASCAP) required venues to pay fees for the use of copyrighted material. In 1940, ASCAP tried to double its usage fees, and radio stations everywhere boycotted copyrighted songs. This hit DeFord particularly hard, because most of his material was copyrighted by ASCAP.

Radio broadcasters—including those who worked for the Opry—tried to offset the loss of ASCAP material by opening Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) and creating a catalog of music designed for its radio shows. WSM made it clear that all of its performers were expected to do their part and create new material. DeFord was offended by the request, and continued to play his old standby songs. After May 24, 1941, his name no longer appeared on the line-up of the show—DeFord had been fired.

The firing of DeFord Bailey is a controversial point in Opry history. According to the book A Story of the Grand Ole Opry (1946), Judge Hay offered his own view of why DeFord was fired:

“Like some members of his race and other races, DeFord was lazy. He knew about a dozen numbers, which he put on the air and recorded for a major company, but he refused to learn any more, even though his reward was great. He was our mascot and is still loved by the entire company. We gave him a whole year’s notice to learn some more tunes, but he would not. When we were forced to give him his final notice, DeFord said, without malice, ‘I knowed it waz comin’, Judge, I knowed it waz comin’.’”

DeFord strongly disagreed with Judge Hay’s account, saying that the Opry insisted that he play the same songs. According to DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music, he once said:

“I told them I got tired of blowing that same thing, but I had to go along with ’em you know. Gene Austin played on Saturday night when I was there. Played ‘Blue Heaven’ on his guitar. Well, I come back next week and had that down on my harp. They said, “No. Naw, don’t play that. That’s their song. You play blues like you’ve been playing.”

DeFord Bailey’s firing from the Grand Ole Opry is still a mystery, and is considered by some musicologists to be one of the great tragedies in American music history.

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After the Opry

After DeFord left the Opry, he continued shining shoes at his shop in the back of his house on 13th Avenue South. The shop was located just a few blocks from the Ryman stage, and Opry fans continued to seek him out, no matter where his business was located. He moved his shop several times, and he drew in as much business as he could handle. His shop on 12th Avenue South had nine chairs and nine employees, and he welcomed customers of all races. At DeFord’s business, you could find white men and black men sitting next to one another and waiting their turn on an equal basis.

Unfortunately, after his falling out with the Opry, DeFord rarely made public appearances to play his music. He was wary of being cheated or taken advantage of, so he typically only played for friends, family and his customers.

Still, DeFord played a role in the music scene as it changed. His son, DeFord Junior, became involved in the soul music scene, playing in clubs along Jefferson Street in the 1950s.

During the last decade of his life, DeFord became close friends with David Morton, a Vanderbilt graduate history student, who recorded the only publicly available renditions of DeFord’s classic tunes. DeFord asked Morton to write his biography.

“I want you to tell the world about this black man,” he said. “He ain’t no fool. Just let people know what I am … I take the bitter with the sweet. Every day is Sunday with me. I’m happy go lucky. Amen!”

DeFord returned to the Opry four more times before he died. He never made a comeback after being fired from the Opry stage, but he died with the realization that his talent was pre-eminent in his field.

“I’m an old man now,” he said, according to DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music. “But they never will get out of a harp what I can. They’re just wasting their time trying to beat me on a harp.”

For more information about DeFord Bailey, visit DaFordBailey.info.
Photos courtesy of David Morton.

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