Country Cult Hero: Deford Bailey

The first black star of The Grand Ole Opry, DeFord Bailey’s place in history is assured. From 1927 until 1941, Bailey was one of the Opry’s most popular performers and blew his trademark harmonica across the WSM airwaves from Nashville for many years. Born just before the twentieth century began in December 1899, Bailey’s star began to rise in 1926 when he first appeared on WSM. “My folks didn’t give me no rattle,” he said. “They gave me a harp and I ain’t been without one since!”

Confined to his bed for a year when he developed polio as an infant, the blues and country pioneer endured health complications and walked with an impediment for the rest of his life. This never stunted the growth of his popularity, however, and Bailey soon became known as the most significant back country star before World War II. Recording for New York’s famous Brunswick Records in the late 1920s, Bailey quickly gained notoriety across America for his harmonica prowess and slick stylings. “I’d wear a white coat, black leather tie, white hat and I’d have a good shoeshine… my work was playing the harp,” he later said.

His harmonica solos turned heads wherever the diminutive musician appeared and he toured across the United States with country legends such as Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff throughout his career. A versatile musician who played many instruments, Bailey became both the first performer to be introduced as playing on The Grand Ole Opry and the first African American performer on the seminal country show. His trademark tune, ‘Pan American Blues’, was a local hit before the national charts took over and he also recorded music for the popular Victor label, alongside releases with the Bluebird and RCA companies, who were at the forefront of putting out popular music in the first half of the last century.

Bailey’s Opry career ended in 1941 when a licensing conflict (copyright had just become big news with BMI-ASCAP) prevented him from blowing any of his best-known tunes live on air and, before the local music business became the national music industry, he spent the rest of his life shining shoes and renting out rooms in his home to make a living. A brief appearance at the Opry’s first ‘Old Timer’s’ show in 1974 aside, the harmonica hero never performed in public again. He died in 1982 and was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

Behind The Song – ‘John Henry’

It’s perhaps symbolic of his working life, that Deford Bailey’s biggest ‘hit’ suffered the same fate as many African-American recording artists, when it was released separately as a ‘race’ and ‘hillbilly’ record by industry giants RCA. The confusion hit sales and Bailey’s take on familiar folk favourite ‘John Henry’ became better known as a traditional arranged by Pete Seeger, amongst many others, a few years later.