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The WSM Grand Ole Opry may have been ahead of its time early on. One of the first stars on the Opry was a black harmonica musician named DeFord Bailey. He was on the Opry for many years. It would be decades before the Opry would see another black performer of his stature in Charley Pride.
He showed the radio world just how the harmonica can be played. DeFord said he had learned how to make the harmonica "take effect." He recorded for the Brunswick and Victor Records and those sounds can be found on those reissue type of albums today.
DeFord Bailey also shares a part of the lore of how the Grand Ole Opry got its name.
In the early days of the show on WSM, the program that preceded George D. Hay's new show was the "Music Appreciation Hour" under the direction of one Dr. Walter Damrosch. The show featured what is today called classical music. One night, just before the show ended, Dr. Damrosch made a remark about there being no place in the classics for realism, but that he was going to break the rule and present a new composition, depicting the on-rush of a locomotive. The orchestra played the tune. That struck a chord with the Solemn Old Judge that night.
When Mr. Hay came on the air, he immediately told WSM's radio audience that they were now listening to "realism" and that it would be "down to earth". Trying to bring about a contrast to the preceding show, he introduced DeFord Bailey who played the Pan American Blues on his harmonica.
When DeFord finished his tune, the Solemn Old Judge still had Dr. Damrosch's comments in his mind and told the audience, "For the past hour we've been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present the Grand Ole Opry! And that is how the longest running radio program got its name.
But DeFord was not the only black performer to appear on the early Grand Ole Opry. There were several singers who appeared at least a few times. But DeFord wryly noted that they did not learn how to fit in. DeFord noted that he just had plain old horse sense. It came down to people skills. He was quoted, "You'll live a long time if you know how to deal with people."
Mr. Bailey was known to keep to himself and regularly turned down requests for interviews. But author in the making Charles W. Morton persisted when someone suggested they feature him in a newsletter for the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency in Nashville. He went down one day to visit his father in Alabama and told him about DeFord. His father immediately recognized the name, telling his son that he had listened to the famed Harmonica Wizard on WSM nearly every Saturday night. Mr. Morton quoted his dad, "I can still remember the sound of DeFord's train...it sounded so real that you could almost see it coming down the track." Mr. Morton tells readers that he got to know DeFord and got him to open up to where DeFord felt he wanted a biography written so his children would know the truth about his career. Mr. Morton took notes on scraps of paper, back of envelopes, but eventually started taping the conversations and had over 30 hours of conversations with DeFord to help write the book.
DeFord was reluctant to talk about any adversity he may have encountered in his life - he preferred to talk about the many good times he was able to enjoy and as he told Mr. Morton who did an short article about him for a Nashville magazine, "Every Day's Been Sunday".
In the biography's introductions section, Charles K. Wolfe spoke of meeting and talking with DeFord. He asked him what kind of music DeFord's grandfather played. He replied, "Black hillbilly music. It was all around back then." That reply stuck with Mr. Wolfe and gave him the thought of doing more research on the topic.
Mr. Wolfe tells readers how those harmonica riffs came to be in "Pan American Blues". When he would walk to school, he had to pass under a railroad trestle. But on frequent occasions, he would simply stop under the trestle and wait for a train to go by, listening to the sounds of the train. That gave DeFord the inspiration to try and recreate those sounds on his harmonica as he walked to school.
DeFord learned to play the harmonica at an early age when he had to deal with a bout of infantile paralysis that left him in bed for over a year. He had to remain almost motionless, moving only his head and hands. But as fate would have it, someone gave him a harmonica to help him pass the time. He began to try and imitate the sounds he heard on the farm. He eventually recovered from the illness, but one of the side effects was the stunting of his growth. He grew to be only four feet ten inches tall.
Remember DeFord spoke of "black hillbilly music". He told Mr. Wolfe that his grandfather was Lewis Bailey and was a champion fiddler. His uncle was the best banjo picker he ever saw. DeFord himself became quite good with the guitar and banjo as well as the harmonica and fooled around a bit playing hoedowns on the fiddle.
It was said that his earliest documented radio performance was on a French harp contest over radio station WDAD in Nashville. Mr. Wolfe notes that DeFord played "It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo" for the audiences and officially won second place. But apparently the talk was that DeFord actually outplayed everyone and the station management was hesitant to give a black performer the first prize. J. T. Bland played "Lost John" in that contest and won first place. We have no way of knowing if anyone ever talked to Mr. Bland about that contest to get his view of things, but it would be interesting to get his perspective.
It appears DeFord appeared on WDAD on more than one occasion as it is reported he met one of the Opry's early performers, Dr. Humphrey Bate and his daughter, Alcyone. Dr. Bate asked DeFord to go with them to WSM and play one night. But DeFord felt all he had was this cheap harmonica in contrast to their fine guitars, fiddles and banjos. DeFord eventually went with them and when they got to the WSM studios, Dr. Bate convinced Judge Hay to let DeFord play on the show without even an audition. Dr. Bate's word carried some weight as he was a talented harmonica player himself. Judge Hay was delighted by what he heard and asked him to return, and nick named him "The Harmonica Wizard".
DeFord became one of Opry's most popular entertainers in that early era. When he appeared in person, he would use an old megaphone with his harmonica to amplify the sound. But on the radio, he didn't have to do that. But he did have to stand on a soda crate to reach the microphone.
The popularity of his "Pan American Blues" and its train effects was such that it caused one engineer to come to the WSM studios and help DeFord correct the exact whistle pattern used at train crossings.
DeFord told Mr. Wolfe he got a lot of fan mail. When he was asked if he appealed more to the white or black community, he just smiled and perhaps with a bit wisdom and replied, "I couldn't tell whether the writers were black or white."
As popular as DeFord was, he still encountered the prejudices of the old south when doing personal appearances in those early years. Fans would hear him on the radio, but did not know he was a black performer until they saw him appear in person. He had to deal with eating in the kitchens of restaurants or not being able stay at the same hotel as other Opry performers, perhaps sleeping in the car.
Uncle Dave Macon was one of his good friends in those early days. DeFord got to know him quite well and considered him a good friend. Uncle Dave went to bat for DeFord, telling hotel clerks that DeFord was his valet and he would not stay at any hotel that would not let DeFord stay with him. It worked more often than not. DeFord told Mr. Wolfe that he shared rooms with Uncle Dave, ate with him, talk with him and discuss each others problems as friends would do.
DeFord was mentioned in Variety magazine in 1934 as being on the Opry.
In 1935, The Billboard magazine was reporting that WSM had sent out a group of its artists on a tour that included stops in Evansville, Louisville, Chatttanooga, Nashville, Atlanta and other southern cities. The group included in addition to DeFord, Uncle Dave Macon, Ken Hackley's Cowboys, the Sweeney Sisters, Dad Wilson's Boys, the Joy White Trio and Ken Hackley as the emcee.
By 1941 though, the Opry and Judge Hay had determined that DeFord could no longer appear. The reasons were varied as Mr. Wolfe documents in his book. The 'press release' version was that DeFord was playing a limited number of tunes and had not learned any new ones. The truth is that fans enjoyed those tunes DeFord played. Perhaps the real reason was a bit of a struggle between two performing rights organizations, BMI and ASCAP in 1941. When he did his early recordings, they were with a publisher affiliated with ASCAP. That meant the tunes were banned from radio broadcast most of 1941. Basically, that caused DeFord to begin a musical exile.
By May 24, 1941, DeFord Bailey was no longer appearing in the listings for the Grand Ole Opry. In that time and place, it was also the height of the ASCAP boycott. By the end of July, WSM's network would sign an agreement with ASCAP and seemingly things returned to normal. But not for DeFord. Alcyone Bate Beasley told David Morton it did not make sense. Most performers would do just what DeFord did, play the tunes they were best known for. Could you imagine Hank Snow not doing "I'm Moving On"? Or Roy Acuff not doing "Great Speckled Bird" or "Wabash Cannonball"? Or Ernest Tubb not doing "Walking The Floor Over You"?
He left the Opry a bit disillusioned. But vowed that he would never again work for someone else. He would survive on his own. He had a shoeshine shop like none other in Nashville. Never had to put his name on the shop. But folks knew where to find him. Mr. Morton notes he sometimes had up to nine chairs and others helping him handle the business that he took pride in. You get the sense he did not do anything half-way. It was all the way and to be the best at it. One of his patients was a doctor who is said to have told DeFord that he handled shoes like a doctor handled patients. He even found an old used popcorn machine that helped bring in additional income, noting those extra dimes and nickels added up over time. He was always able to provide for his family.
Mr. Wolfe notes DeFord summed up his career a bit in looking back in retrospect and simply said, "I was a humdinger."
Mr. Morton notes that Bill Monroe played a haunting mandolin tune of one of DeFord's signature tunes, "Evening Prayer Blues" at a memorial service about a year after DeFord had died. After the tune, he said, "DeFord was the best harmonica player when it came to playing the blues of any man, I thought, that ever lived."
If you search the online video sites, you will find several videos of DeFord Bailey doing his signature tunes. In fact, you'll even find that one of his grandsons took up the harmonica, too.
We'll update DeFord's biography again at some point in the future as we get time and do more research. We want to leave you with a quote that David Morton used to close his biography of DeFord Bailey.
"I want you to tell the world about this black man. 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!
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