DeFord Bailey, a virtuoso harmonica player who won fame on the early Grand Ole Opry, has a more significant place in history as the first African American to win fame in the field of country music as well as blues. He is recognized today as one of the South's most gifted traditional musicians, as well as one of the Opry's key figures in the 1920s and 1930s. His harmonica playing had an immense impact on the performing styles of both white and black players.
Bailey was born in the community of Bellwood in Smith County on December 14, 1899. He grew up in the rural hill country there, surrounded by what he called “black hillbilly music.” His grandfather was a local champion fiddler, and other members of the family played the guitar, banjo, harmonica, and other traditional instruments. His own interest in the harmonica dated from the time he was stricken with polio at age three; the disease stunted his growth and left him too frail to do much of the farm work. He spent his days mastering the instrument, imitating trains and natural sounds and developing a battery of complex trills, harmonics, lip puffs, and blended notes for his harmonica.
Moving to Nashville in 1918, Bailey worked as a domestic for wealthy white families on the city's West End, and in his spare time he haunted local theaters in order to hear the age's great blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. By 1925 he was working as an elevator operator at the National Life and Accident building when Dr. Humphrey Bate, himself a harmonica player and charter member of the Grand Ole Opry, got him an audition for the show. Bailey soon became an Opry regular; by 1928 he was appearing on the show more often than any other performer. He became best known for his novelty pieces such as “The Fox Chase” and “Pan American Blues” in which he did imitations on his harp. In 1927 he journeyed to New York to record eight tunes for the Brunswick Company, and the following year he participated in the very first recording session–conducted by RCA Victor–to be held in Nashville. In spite of his radio popularity, though, these records were not commercially successful–most of the Victor recordings were never released–and he did not try to record again for decades.
During the 1930s Bailey toured widely with Opry groups throughout the South. Often he was refused accommodations at hotels on the tours and had to seek lodging with local black families. Audiences on these tours were often surprised to see that Bailey was black–the Opry had not emphasized this on the radio shows–and publicity soon began to patronizingly refer to him as the Opry “mascot.” The Opry fired him in 1941 for a variety of complex reasons including a feud between two music licensing organizations, changing musical tastes, and the increasing professionalization of the Opry. Hurt and angry, Bailey retired from performing and opened a shoeshine stand in downtown Nashville.
In the 1960s a group of young folk music enthusiasts including Dick Hulan, Archie Allen, and James Talley rediscovered Bailey; he began to appear at local coffeehouses and festivals, and in 1965 he gave a concert at Vanderbilt University. But he turned down national offers to record, to appear at the Newport Folk Festival, and even to take a role in major Hollywood films like, W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings, which was largely filmed in Nashville. In 1974 he began to work with a young housing authority agent named David Morton, who convinced Bailey to return to a series of special guest appearances on the Opry and to dictate his biography for later generations. DeFord Bailey died on July 2, 1982, and is buried in Nashville's Greenwood Cemetery. His son, DeFord Bailey Jr., has kept some of his father's harmonica music alive.