The city of Nashville is naming a street after Grand Ole Opry
pioneer DeFord Bailey, the “Harmonica Wizard” whose popularity
and contributions to country music and blues are still being recognized decades later.
On Saturday, DeFord Bailey Avenue will be officially dedicated in
the Edgehill neighborhood of Nashville where Bailey lived most of his life until
his death in 1982. Two of Bailey’s grandsons, Carlos DeFord Bailey and
Herchel Bailey will perform at a concert after the dedication.
Bailey overcame huge obstacles on his way to stardom. He contracted polio
as a child, which led him to learn the harmonica while he was bedridden. He
came from a family of Black musicians and his music created a link
between the rural “Black hillbilly music” he learned living in Smith County, Tennessee, and the contemporary country music that was being formed on the Opry stage.
“He traveled throughout the South with Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and Minnie Pearl and that
gang there, and he was the star of the show,” said his grandson Carlos DeFord Bailey.
In 1927, Bailey’s performance of “Pan American Blues,” in which his harmonica
imitated the sound of a rolling locomotive, helped inspire the name
“Grand Ole Opry,” and he was the first musician to hold
a major recording session in Nashville in 1928. Despite his success and
popularity, Bailey faced racism during the Jim Crow Era of segregation in
the South, especially while touring with other white Opry members.
“He wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things that the other artists were able
to do, like going to restaurants, going into the hotels, using
the bathrooms,” said his grandson. “He had to sleep in the car from time to time.”
Bailey performed on the Opry for about 16 years until 1941 when a
dispute between the Opry and the performing rights organization ASCAP created
a rift. The Opry management forbade Bailey from performing his songs that
were licensed through ASCAP, including listener favorites
like “Fox Chase.” When he refused, the Opry fired him.
Bailey retired from playing professionally and channeled his attention to a second
career as the owner of a shoe-shine parlor in Nashville. His grandson remembers
spending Saturdays at the parlor and recalls that his grandfather often
dressed very dapper — wearing suits underneath his overalls to protect them from
Bailey’s impact on country music was overlooked or whitewashed from
the history books for decades. Acuff, for example, argued publicly shortly
after Bailey’s death that Bailey’s music didn’t rise to the level of
other Country Music Hall of Fame members like himself.
An author named David Morton wrote the definitive biography on Bailey in 1991
that finally led to recognition for the musical pioneer and acknowledgement
of the racism he endured.
In 2005, Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And last year,
the Opry issued a statement and apology for its role in racism within country
music, including using blackface performers during the early decades and
its firing of Bailey.
Carlos DeFord Bailey, who followed in his grandfather’s footsteps as musician and
as a shoe-shiner, said he appreciates the steps taken by the Opry to recognize
“The Grand Ole Opry has gotten younger and they believe
in doing the right thing,” said Bailey. “And it’s opened the doors for a lot of
people of color.”
In addition to the street renaming, a new edition of Morton’s biography
is currently on sale through the CMHOF’s website and museum — complete with a
new forward, more illustrations and a complete recording session discography.
It will be rolled out to more bookstores in June. Carlos DeFord Bailey
believes the moves will help keep Bailey’s legacy alive for a new generation.
“I think a lot more people will hear about him and and will learn
about him,” he said.
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