The Unsung Black Musician Who Changed Country Music

From the moment DeFord Bailey stepped onto a stage in Nashville, country music would never be the same. It was decades after his death before he finally got his due.

The Unsung Black Musician Who Changed Country Music

DeFord Bailey walked onto the Grand Ole Opry stage with a slight limp. Decked out in a bow tie, pocket square and polished shoes, he stood on a Coca-Cola crate to offset his 4-foot-11-inch stature. It was 1936. Bailey looked out at the audience, sitting on wooden benches in the Opry’s Dixie Tabernacle, just east of Nashville’s downtown core. He carried a harmonica, or “a harp,” as it was often referred to at the time, in his left hand. When he brought the harmonica to his mouth, he played a tune that sounded like the bold whistle of a locomotive train. For 15 minutes, he played a unique blend of country music and blues, bringing smiles to the eyes of the people in the dusty old tabernacle. Aside from his obvious talent and innovative harmonica technique, Bailey broke cultural barriers by becoming the first black country music star, and he was one of the most beloved Opry musicians of his time. He played harmonica for the Grand Ole Opry from 1925 to 1941, and toured the country with his white Opry peers during the heyday of Jim Crow. Yet it would be decades before Bailey’s pioneering contributions to country music were widely recognized — and the accomplished musician died penniless.

Bailey was on welfare, living alone in a public housing complex for the elderly, when my father-in-law, David Morton, who worked at Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, first encountered him. Morton wrote a profile of Bailey for the residents’ free newsletter. The two struck up a friendship, and Morton would go on to work as Bailey’s manager and later write the biography DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country Music alongside musicologist and leading country music expert Charles K. Wolfe. When they met, Bailey was at a low point in his life, hard of hearing and dwelling on past injustices.

“He was real wary of any kind of performing at that point in his life,” Morton says. “There were two things he wanted me to do, and I promised him I would. One was to mark his grave. … He wanted a proper tombstone. And secondly, he wanted me to tell his story. He said, ‘Tell the world about this little black man. He ain’t no fool.’”

Bailey was born in a small wood-framed farmhouse in Smith County, Tennessee, on a snowy day in December 1899. His mother, Mary, coined the name DeFord from a combination of two of her favorite schoolteachers’ names: Mr. DeBarry and Mrs. Ford. Just over a year later, Mary died of an unknown illness. DeFord Bailey’s father, John Henry, asked his younger sister, Barbara Lou, and her husband, Clark, to move in and assist with taking care of the child. From then on, DeFord Bailey referred to Barbara Lou and Clark as “mommy and daddy.”

At age 3, Bailey was diagnosed with polio. For over a year, he stayed in bed, unable to walk. Although he was partially paralyzed, Bailey was able to move his head and his arms. It was during this bedridden year that he began to play several instruments. In Morton and Wolfe’s book, Bailey is quoted as saying, “My daddy would give me a harp, or hang an old guitar or banjo around my neck, and let me pick on it for hours at a time. I couldn’t do much else.”

Bailey came from a family of musicians. His birth mother, Mary, played guitar, and his adopted daddy, Clark, played banjo and fiddle. The Baileys often performed together at church events, family celebrations and local barn dances. They cherished black hillbilly music — a blend of blues and country derived from slave spirituals and West African lute music, an instrument that was a predecessor to the banjo.

In her book Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, University of Louisville professor Diane Pecknold discusses the prevalence of black hillbilly music prior to World War II. “Since at least the mid-1950s, scholars and discographers have been aware of a handful of prewar hillbilly recordings featuring racially integrated bands or African-American artists, but these records have received surprisingly little scholarly attention,” Pecknold explains. “[They are often] treated as historical anomalies … but otherwise unimportant curiosities.”

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DeFord Bailey performing his most well-known song, “Pan American Blues” with his harmonica at the Opry stages as part of the “Old Timers’ Reunion,” in 1974. (Photo courtesy Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Bailey was highly attentive to this music and other sounds of the rural South where he grew up. He spent much of his time listening to animals like sheep, cows, dogs and chickens, trying to recreate the sounds they made on the harmonica. “I’m just like a microphone,” Bailey recalled in Robert K. Oremann’s book Behind the Grand Ole Opry Curtain: Tales of Romance and Tragedy. “I pick up everything I hear around me.”

Bailey recovered from his bout with polio, but the virus had stunted his growth and led to a slight deformity of his back, which caused him to limp. As an adult, he weighed just 100 pounds. Yet he later said that the illness had been a blessing in a way. He told Morton, “If I’d been stout, I’d have laid that harp down when I was a boy. Since I wasn’t, I stuck with it.”

At 18, Bailey moved to Nashville. When he boarded the train, the ticket agent offered him a child’s ticket. Bailey told Morton for DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music, “I would tell ’em I was grown, but they didn’t believe me. I was so little.” In Nashville he shined shoes, operated an elevator, ran errands for a pharmacy, and worked as a carpenter. He always kept his harmonica on him, playing it whenever he could. During his free time, Bailey regularly attended shows at the Bijou Theater, where he saw blues singers like Bessie Smith, Sara Martin and Ma Rainey, a.k.a. Mother of the Blues.

In 1925, Bailey made his radio debut on Nashville’s WDAD, winning second place in the station’s French harp contest when he played a rendition of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.” His second-place finish created an uproar. Listeners were livid that a black performer could place ahead of white performers.

 Shortly after the contest, he ran into two fellow WDAD performers, Dr. Humphrey Bate and his daughter, Alcyone, who convinced Bailey to come on WSM Barn Dance, a popular radio show judged by journalist George D. Hay. When they arrived at WSM’s headquarters, the show was already in session, and Humphrey Bate had to beg Hay to let Bailey on the air. Hay was reluctant to do so without an audition, and Bailey was bashful about the fact that he only had a cheap harmonica, while most of the performers had expensive guitars, fiddles and banjos.

Eventually, Hay caved, and when Bailey started playing, he was captivated. Bailey’s music was mellow and peculiar, and Hay immediately nicknamed him “the harmonica wizard.” He soon became a regular weekly performer on WSM. According to Country Music: An Illustrated History, by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, Hay once said, “I’m letting you know, DeFord Bailey is the best harp player that was ever known out of four hundred years, and still is.”

Bailey, left, and David Morton during one of their recordings in the 1970s. (Photo by Rayburn Ray, via David Morton)

During the early days of WSM Barn Dance, the music varied from gospel to barbershop quartets to brass bands. The performers were primarily white, with an occasional African-American blues singer or guitarist. After its first couple years, the show began to focus more on what is now considered country music, and Bailey emerged as its only black musician. The show also featured blackface minstrel acts. Bailey never specifically mentioned whether the racist minstrel acts bothered him, but he later told Morton, “I would play dumb like I didn’t know anything, but I was soaking it in like rain.”

Initially Barn Dance was hosted in the National Life and Accident Insurance Company’s building in downtown Nashville. Edwin Craig, the son of the insurance company’s founder, was fascinated with radio, a technology that was just starting to gain popularity. Craig used radio ads to appeal to both white and black audiences; he saw black people in particular as an untapped market for insurance policies. Bailey recounted to Morton how Hay told him at one point that “half of National Life’s money comes from colored people,” and that Bailey had helped make a lot of those sales.

In the spring of 1927, WSM became an NBC affiliate. That meant that WSM could pick up network feeds from New York or Chicago and include live programs from both cities on their station. One of NBC’s programs was a classical music series called Music Appreciation Hour, hosted by the orchestra conductor Walter Damrosch. The show’s goal was to popularize “serious” music, and in the fall of 1928 Damrosch played a classical musical sample that mimicked the sound of a locomotive train. Never one to back down from a challenge, Hay scoffed at the classical musician’s attempt to recreate a locomotive train, telling listeners across the country, “for the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from the Grand Opera, but from now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.” That was when Bailey stepped onto the stage and played “Pan American Blues,” one of his trademark tunes, emulating the sound of a locomotive speeding down the tracks. It was then that Bailey became part of music history, inspiring Hay to change the name of WSM Barn Dance to the Grand Ole Opry.

In order to be accepted by the white community, Bailey was aware that he couldn’t assert himself. “I stayed in my place,” he told Morton. “I didn’t push myself forward. If someone wanted to shake hands or talk to me, they came to me.” Bailey also recalled that his boyish appearance (due to the polio) often made him seem more approachable to white people who may have viewed other black people as threatening.

When Bailey stepped into the studio on Saturday nights, he went straight to his chair and never left it except to perform or use the bathroom; luckily he was able to use the same bathroom as the white performers. After each song, he simply said, “thank you,” and continued on to the next tune. “I could have been a better musician,” Bailey acknowledged. “But I was handicapped and I was afraid I’d do something wrong. See, white people could do no wrong … it didn’t work like that [for a black man].”

Bailey performing “Pan American Blues,” 1967.

When Bailey was on the radio at WSM, there was no mention on air of his skin color for some time, out of fear that it would impact the audience. Most of the listeners assumed he was white, and would only learn that he was black when they saw him perform live. Those fears proved to be largely unfounded, with Bailey’s audience continuing to tune in after he became more well known. Throughout the 1930s, Bailey toured the country with other Grand Ole Opry musicians. During the week, they would travel by car to play in cities across the South, always returning to Nashville for Saturday’s radio show. Sometimes during these tours, Bailey would play guitar and banjo. Since he was left-handed, he would turn the guitar upside down, tune it, and perform, pioneering this method of playing long before Jimi Hendrix famously flipped his Stratocaster upside down.

“I ain’t never been free,” Bailey told Morton. Traveling in the South presented challenges for a black man. Bailey recalled that at some of his performances he was the first black man to show up in the town since the Civil War. Finding a place to eat was difficult, and he usually had to eat in the kitchen or behind the restaurant, while his fellow performers dined inside “white only” establishments, often bringing Bailey a sandwich to eat in the car. Sometimes they would drive an extra 50 miles to find an establishment that would accommodate Bailey.

Bailey, top left, and the Grand Ole Opry musicians, late 1920s.

At other times he had to be smuggled into hotels or pose as a baggage boy in order to find lodging. Bailey was turned away from many hotels, and on one occasion he was forced to sleep in the lobby of a funeral home when he couldn’t find anywhere else to stay. Wherever he went, Bailey always wore a custom-made silver pin on his lapel bearing the letters WSM. It wasn’t a matter of aesthetic choice so much as a matter of survival. For a black man in an all-white town, it was important that people knew he was associated with a credible organization.

Bailey’s career came to a screeching halt in 1941 when WSM got wrapped up in a copyright war with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). The organization wanted to triple its royalty fees for radio, which meant that the Opry musicians couldn’t play the songs they were known for. As a result WSM boycotted all music licensed by ASCAP.

After 16 years of performing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry, Bailey was fired in May of 1941. He was 42 years old. The reasons behind Bailey’s dismissal remain unclear, with conflicting accounts from different sources. In his memoir A Story of the Grand Ole Opry, Hay revealed his ugly side as he explained that Bailey refused to play new material outside of the ASCAP umbrella. Hay wrote, “Like some members of his race and other races, Bailey was lazy. We gave him a whole year’s notice to learn some more tunes, but he would not.”

Bailey recalled the termination differently. He said WSM discouraged him from playing new tunes and only wanted him to play the ones he was known for, while white artists were applauded when they played new songs. Bailey’s method of arranging and adapting new songs was one of slow refinements that took months and years.

“I told ’em years ago I got tired of the same thing, of blowing that same thing, but I had to go along with ’em, you know,” Bailey told Morton. “If I had been a white man, I could have done it. They held me down … I wasn’t free.”

The boycott between WSM and ASCAP was resolved mere months after Bailey was fired.

Bailey was disheartened by his fallout with WSM, and reluctant to work for anyone else. By this time, he had a wife and three children to support.

“Sometimes, I wish I’d never heard of WSM,” he later told Morton. “They made me have some bad thoughts, and I don’t like that.” Throughout his career, Bailey had supplemented his Opry income by operating a shoeshine parlor, selling food from a small barbeque stand, and renting out rooms in his home. He continued making ends meet this way after his dismissal, and he briefly resurrected his relationship with the Opry when he collaborated with the program for a film created for GIs overseas during World War II. Toward the end of his life, he also made several guest appearances on the Opry stage. By that point he was relying on social welfare programs and living in public housing. Nevertheless, Bailey played the harmonica every single day until his death in 1982. Morton honored Bailey’s request for a tombstone. The Supreme Granite company in Elberton, Georgia, donated the stone; artist Rodney Dobbs donated the design and Morton’s father transported it and set it in the cemetery.

In 2019, Bailey received a star on the Music City Walk of Fame on Nashville’s Music Mile, acknowledging his influence as a country music pioneer. He was essential to the creation of the Grand Ole Opry, which later launched the careers of stars like Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. Yet to this day he is one of only two black musicians to have ever been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (the first was Charley Pride in 2000, then Bailey in 2005).

Bailey during a recording session with David Morton, 1970s. (Photo by Marilyn Morton, via David Morton)

The debate over African-Americans’ legacy — and legitimacy — in country music continues. Last year, Grammy-nominated country rapper Lil Nas X’s number one single “Old Town Road (Remix)” was controversially removed from Billboard’s country music chart for not being “country enough.” The controversy would not have been unfamiliar to Bailey, who made his own mark by refusing to adhere to traditional boundaries.

Bailey’s groundbreaking sound was “Southern roots music, a mixture of blues, of country, of old-time fiddle music, of vaudeville music, and old-time pop music from the ’20s,” Opry historian Dr. Charles Wolfe told The Tennessean newspaper in 2002. “The thing about DeFord I always liked, unlike many other musicians of that time who were handicapped by genre, he never really understood boundaries. Music was music.”