Muddy Roots News
  • 11.17.14

    Odd Americana: DeFord Bailey: The Best Harmonica Player You Never Heard Of

    Roy “King of Country Music” Acuff said, “I was an unknown and DeFord [Bailey] traveled with me for a long time. He helped me get where I am.”

    But who the heck was DeFord Bailey?

    Only one of the most popular Grand Ole Opry performers EVER. DeFord Bailey was at the Opry before it was called the Opry – back when it was the WSM Barn Dance. Judge Hay, the Opry’s announcer, came up with the name Grand Ole Opry as he introduced DeFord Bailey. Bailey then played his most famous song “The Pan American Blues”, a tune which near-perfectly mimicked a L&N express/passenger train.

    Bailey played the Grand Ole Opry twice as much as any other musician from 1927 – 1941. For 14 years he drew crowds so large that the Opry often had him tour with up-and-comers (like Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff) to help build their audiences. Yet, one of the best roots and blues harmonica players of all time has been lost from public knowledge. Maybe because there is “…an obvious paradox: that country music includes a long-standing tradition of black participation and contribution but remains nonetheless ‘white’ music.” (Hidden in the Mix) Meaning, DeFord Bailey was an African American and the history of country music, to a certain extent, has been white-washed, both in the perception of those who listen to it and those who create(d) it.

    DeFord Bailey was a slight man. About 5 feet tall. There was a subtle curve to his back. He had a limp. These were all side effects of fighting off polio when he was 3. Bailey was bedridden for a year and in that year, he played harmonica. Music was old-hat to him. He’d received his first harmonica when he was 1. No big surprise, when you come from a family where everyone sang or danced and your granddad was a prized fiddler. That, and how hard could a harmonica be to play as compared to the homemade instruments that were lying around?

    “You ever made music with a hair comb? You can put paper over it and blow against it. You holler through it. You can get any tune you want out of it, high or low. I didn’t last long, ‘cause it tickled my lip. I bet you never heard of making fiddles out of corn talks. Well, we did that too.” (DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music)

    DeFord Bailey

    Add in cane fifes and washtub basses, too. The Bailey family made them all. But what stuck with DeFord was the harmonica, and maybe because of his year lying in bed listening to the world, DeFord got good at mimicking noises with his instrument. He said of his famed train songs:

    “I worked on my train for years, getting that train down right…I got the engine part. Then I had to make the whistle. It was about, I expect, seventeen years to get that whistle. It takes time to get this stuff that I’m talking about, original. You don’t get no original stuff in a day or two. It takes years to get it down piece by piece.” (DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music)

    You got a man who had natural talent and a drive to develop a style, but no opportunities to display that skill…until he was a youngin’ working as a houseboy for a wealthy Tennessee family. Once the family accidentally heard Bailey play his harmonica, they had him dressed to the nines in a white coat, black leather tie, and a bright shoeshine. He didn’t have to do anymore chores. He played music in the parlor all day.

    Bailey stayed in and around Nashville thereafter. As he got older, he collected odd jobs. He worked in a theater. He was an elevator operator. He occasionally played music for dinner parties. Finally, DeFord Bailey’s big break came through…bicycle riding.

    Seriously, smalls. It did. Here’s how.

    Bailey loved his bike. He rode it from boyhood through his early 40s. He was a proficient trick rider and, occasionally, would incorporate his bicycle into his Opry act. But before the Opry, there was WDAD, a radio station run by a Pop Exum – a fan of DeFord Bailey. Exum also managed an auto accessory shop. Bailey became a regular on WDAD radio because Exum heard DeFord play his harmonica while buying parts for his bicycle at the auto shop.

    DeFord Bailey

    Not long after, WSM stole DeFord Bailey away for the Grand Ole Opry through the introduction of Dr. Humphrey Bate (of the Possum Hunters), a flagship act of the Opry and a regular on WDAD.

    DeFord Bailey was a fast success with audiences of all colors. He made $5 an appearance while on tour and $7 a night during his early years at the Opry. Not a shabby wage in an age where you could buy a loaf a bread for 10 cents. But still, in 1929, two years into working with the Opry, Bailey was in so much demand by other radio stations and on tour, he was able to haggle the Opry into giving him a raise of $20/night. That’d be about $270/ night in 2014 money.

    From 1927 – 1928, DeFord Bailey recorded his entire commercial catalog in 3 sessions. His first session was at Columbia Records in Atlanta. Two songs (“Pan American Blues” and Hesitation Blues”) were recorded. His second session was in New York where eight songs went on record. His third and final session – well, get this – was at Victor Records in Nashville, TN. Eight sides were recorded, though not all were released. According to the PBS documentary DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost and Paul Hemphill’s The Nashville Sound, DeFord Bailey was the first person to record in Nashville, TN. Not the first African American. Not the first harmonica player. He was the first musician EVER to be recorded in Music City, USA.

    The Rambler wants to note, that this column is called “Odd Americana”. The only odd facet of Bailey’s history is how the world chose to forget the first man ever recorded in Nashville.

    DeFord Bailey was insanely popular for well over a decade. He toured everywhere. He was trusted and loved by his fellow musicians. So what happened? Why did he stop the Opry in 1941? What did he do after that? When did he die? Whoa there, cowboy. We’ll get to it all.

    In 1941, the Opry fired DeFord Bailey.

    Yeah. Good move, Opry. Good move.

    It was all about money, and not even Bailey’s salary. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) held the licenses on most of the traditional songs that DeFord Bailey reworked to make his own. ASCAP wanted more money or “their songs” couldn’t be played on the radio. WSM, the home of the Opry, didn’t want to pay up. DeFord was told he couldn’t play his songs. DeFord Bailey didn’t have new songs to play. He was then fired from the Opry.

    Here’s what Judge Hay said about DeFord Bailey’s leaving in A Story of the Grand Ole Opry:

    “That brings us to DeFord Bailey, a little crippled colored boy who was a bright feature on our show for almost 15 years. Like some members of his race and other races, DeFord was lazy. He knew a dozen numbers, which he played 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 was comin’ Judge. I knowed it was comin’.’”

    What the hell kinda crap is that? ASCAP held copyright on traditional songs that Bailey played his entire life. WSM wanted him to suddenly create an entirely new collection of songs in his famed style. They asked a man to create a catalog of all-new, brilliant material in the matter of a year, when one song feasibly took DeFord Bailey 17 YEARS to master. Sonsabitches. Let alone, how’s about that tone? The Rambler kinda wants to piss on Hay’s book (or at least that page) for using such a patronizing, racist tone – especially when Bailey spoke of Hay as a friend in his own interview-driven biography, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music.

    DeFord Bailey book

    DeFord Bailey was done with music. From the 1940s until his death in 1982, he did only a handful of guest appearances. Once again, he was back to odd jobs. Odd – but stable. Bailey owned a shoeshine shop that served popcorn, soft drinks, and ice cream. He rented out rooms in his house. He made dinners and sold them at a coal yard. He bought coal while he was there and resold it elsewhere.

    DeFord Bailey didn’t allow his disappearance from music to destroy him. He had a wife. He had three kids. He had business sense. Towards the end of his life, after he was befriended by David Morton, author of his biography, Bailey finally saw his worth and legacy to music. He said, “I’m an old man now. 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. Ain’t nobody ever beat me down with no harp. Trying to beat me blowing is like trying to outrun a Greyhound bus! I got notes harder than Mohammed Ali can throw.”

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    To find out more about DeFord Bailey check out:

    DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music – David C. Morton

    And for more information on diversuty within country music flip the pages of:

    Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music – edited by Diane Pecknold

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    Patty Templeton’s favorite song by DeFord Bailey is “John Henry”…or maybe it is “Pan American Blues”. What’s your favorite Bailey song? Spout it out at her over here.