Tuesday, July 14, 2015

DeFord Bailey, Pioneer Black Member Of The Grand Ole Opry

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases four harmonica performances by Country and Blues musician DeFord Bailey. One sound file of DeFord Bailey singing a Blues song is also featured in this post. In addition, this post includes information about Mr. Bailey and selected comments from some of these examples' YouTube discussion threads.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to DeFord Bailey for his musical legacy. Thanks also to all those quoted in this post and thanks to the producers of these examples and the publishers of these examples on YouTube.

"DeFord Bailey (December 14, 1899 – July 2, 1982) was an American country music and blues star from the 1920s until 1941. Bailey was both the first performer to be introduced as playing on the Grand Ole Opry and also the first African-American performer on the show. He played several instruments but is best known for his harmonica tunes...

A grandson of slaves,[3] Bailey was born near the Bellwood community in Smith County, Tennessee,[4][5] and learned to play the harmonica at the age of three...

In 1918, he moved to Nashville performing locally as an amateur,[7] with his first radio appearance as documented in the newspapers' radio schedules being June 19, 1926 on Nashville's WSM. [8] On December 10, 1927, he premiered his trademark number, "Pan American Blues" (named for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad's Pan-American) on a show then known as the "WSM Barn Dance". At that time "Barn Dance" aired after NBC's classical music show, the "Music Appreciation Hour". While introducing Bailey, WSM station manager and announcer George D. Hay exclaimed on-air: “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’”[4]

Bailey also had several records issued in 1927-1928, all of them harmonica solos. In 1927 he recorded for Brunswick records in New York City,[9][10] while in 1928 he recorded eight sides[2] for Victor in Nashville,[9][10] of which three were issued on several labels, including Victor, Bluebird and RCA. Emblematic of the ambiguity of Bailey's position as a recording artist is the fact his arguably greatest recording, John Henry, was released separately in both RCA's 'race' and 'hillbilly' series.[11]

Bailey was a pioneer member of the WSM Grand Ole Opry, and one of its most popular performers, appearing on the program from 1927 to 1941.[12] During this period he toured with many major country stars, including Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff.[13] Like other black stars of his day traveling in the South and West, he faced many difficulties in finding food and accommodation because of the discriminatory Jim Crow laws.[14]"...

"[DeFord] Bailey grew up in a musical family who played what he called “black hillbilly music,” a tradition of secular string-band music actually shared by rural black and white musicians alike. He also learned songs in church, and developed a keen ear for the music he heard around him: the chugging of trains, the baying of hounds chasing foxes, and the sounds of animals on the succession of farms Clark Odum managed in Davidson and Williamson counties. Bailey moved to Nashville in 1918 and spent the next six years working odd jobs, including stints as a houseboy, drugstore helper, and elevator operator. Meanwhile, he learned jazz, blues, and pop songs from recordings and from live shows he attended in local theaters. In doing so, he became a bridge between rural folk music and the modern world of commercial popular music.

A trip to Dad’s Auto Parts to buy parts for his bicycle (his principal means of transportation) led to his meeting store owner Fred “Pop” Exum, who was fascinated by Bailey’s harmonica playing and began featuring him on radio station WDAD once Exum launched the enterprise in mid-September 1925. Here, Bailey met harmonica player and string-band leader Dr. Humphrey Bate, a kindly country doctor from Castalian Springs, Tennessee, who began performing over Nashville’s powerful WSM not long after its October 5, 1925 debut. Within months, confident in Bailey’s ability, Bate persuaded Bailey to come with him one night to appear on the show then called the WSM Barn Dance, and then convinced station manager George D. Hay to let Bailey perform without an audition. By June 1926, Bailey was making regular appearances, and Hay soon dubbed him “The Harmonica Wizard.”

Indeed, Bailey was a dazzling performer, whose renditions of “Fox Chase,” his train song “Pan American Blues,” and other tunes became instant hits. For the next fifteen years, he remained one of the program’s best loved—and best paid—stars.

In 1927, Hay spontaneously renamed the Barn Dance while introducing some of his down-home musicians on a WSM weekday evening broadcast following NBC’s Music Appreciation Hour, a classical music program hosted by Dr. Walter Damrosch. Countering Damrosch’s remark that “there is no place in the classics for realism,” Hay said, “[W]e will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy.’” As if to illustrate his point, Hay introduced Bailey, whose “Pan American Blues” recreated the whoosh of the L&N Railroad express train he had heard from his boyhood. In his introduction, Hay also said, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’” Thus Bailey and his musical cohorts helped to inspire the name of America’s longest-running radio show."...

These examples are presented in chronological order based on their posting date on YouTube with the oldest examples given first.

Example #1: DeFord Bailey - Pan American Blues

Robert Montgomery. Uploaded on Oct 20, 2008

DeFord Bailey - Pan American Blues (From "National Life Grand Ole Opry" 1967)
Two selected comments from this video's discussion thread:
Robin Rothschild, 2010
"Deford made few recordings. The only ones I am aware of were made around 1928 and perhaps some recording by David Morton, Deford's friend and advocate as well as biographer."

moproducer, 2011
"DeFord Bailey was an absolute wizard with the instrument, and the very first star of the Grand Ole Opry. Unfortunately for all of us - but especially for him - his skin was considered the wrong color, very soon after the Opry went from a studio program to a performance before a live audience. Whatever effort was made to make it up to him in later years simply wasn't enough.

DeFord Bailey was deprived of a stardom that was rightfully his. Shame on Nashville."

Example #2: DeFord Bailey - Fox Chase

Robert Montgomery, Uploaded on Oct 20, 2008

DeFord Bailey - Fox Chase (From "National Life Grand Ole Opry" 1967)
selected comments from this video's discussion thread:
Robin Rothschild, 2010
"Deford was one of the charter members of the Grand Ole Opry. Recorded a few songs in 1928 but mostly best seen in person, Finally in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Deford influenced hamonica players like fellow Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy. Listen to this master musician perform effortlessly a fox chase, including calls and yelps to the dogs to make you feel you are right in the action.


cblanch, 2010
"Anyone noticed his style and tone is almost identical to that of Noah Lewis, who was 4 years older, came from Henning, Tennesee (also in Smith County) and died in 1961,1 year before Bailey. Lewis probably taught him to play the "traditional" stuff. Lewis (Cannon's Jug Stompers) had a major influence on Sonny Terry also who was 16 years his junior and 12 years younger than Bailey.."

jessica brown, 2011
"This guy was one of the founders of the Old Grand Opera! Blacks have a lot to do with Country music. As a matter of fact excluding old negro spiritual, 1800,early 1900 country music was created in the fields of slavery, and hidden juke joints of the South. It surely wasn't hip hop, or Beethoven!"

glencoe6305, 2011
"You can buy/order his CD's from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop,in Nashville.They have a website,and it's probaly one of the few places you can get them."

Winslow Yerxa, 2012
"From those 1920s recordings to this 1967 performance, he didn't lose a thing. One of the really great players."

butanebandit, 2014
"I wish someone would find the original unadulterated tapes of these performances. This show was taped in color in 1967. Along the way, someone must have thought it would be "artful" to turn it sepia to make it look older than it was."

Example #3: DeFord Bailey - Davidson County Blues

Joshua Stump, Uploaded on Dec 16, 2010

DeFord Bailey (December 14, 1899 -- July 2, 1982) was an early country music star and the first African American performer on the Grand Ole Opry. Bailey played several instruments but is best known for his harmonica tunes. He was one of the few notable African-American stars in country music.
A commenter in this sound file's discussion thread indicated that this recording was made in 1929. Here's another comment from that discussion thread:
john ingalls, 2012
"I love Deford Bailey.He should have been elected to Country Music Hall of Fame BEFORE he died in 1982 not after."

Example #4: Deford Bailey - Black Man Blues

Lionel MJC, Uploaded on Jan 18, 2012

This album's title is true. Throughout the '20s and '30s, Nashville's Grand Ole Opry regularly featured DeFord Bailey on its stage. His solo harmonica performances of traditional folk tunes were wildly popular, even if they were more akin to country blues music than to country music proper. Made between 1974 and 1976, when Bailey himself was in his late seventies, these recordings capture the legend with his harmonica abilities mostly in tact. His trademark tune, "Pan American," is included, as are renditions of the blues and gospel standards "John Henry" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Most of the album's tunes are harmonica solos, but Bailey also frails a pair of old-time banjo tunes and fingerpicks four blues numbers on an acoustic guitar. Bailey plays with great joy and skill throughout, offering casual and serious listeners alike something to enjoy. (source :

Example #5: John Henry - Deford Bailey

will jim, Published on Nov 8, 2012

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