Back when the Grand Ole Opry was just a one-hour radio show called “WSM Barn Dance,” one of the greatest harmonica players of all time was tapped to be a regular. DeFord Bailey’s endlessly inventive playing was an audience favorite from 1927 to 1941, his fanbase growing right along with the Opry itself.
Sadly, little of that adulation and respect followed him off the stage. As a Black man with a limp and a humpback, Bailey was treated like the dirt on his family farm back in Tennessee. It was especially a problem when he toured. He nearly died of pneumonia one winter because he wasn’t allowed to stay where white musicians could, and no hotel would take him in. But he never missed a chance to shine onstage.
Known in Nashville as the “Harmonica Wizard,” Bailey had been born in rural Tennessee in 1899. His mother died when he was a baby, and as a toddler he contracted polio. During the year he was bedridden, at age three, he taught himself to play the harmonica. Many of his relatives were accomplished musicians, particularly his grandfather, an award-winning fiddler.
Although Bailey’s strength and mobility were permanently hampered by his illness, he always considered himself lucky. He believed God had kept him from playing outside with other kids so that he could become a better musician. He also gave credit to his father and aunts, grateful they’d given him a “harp” instead of a “rattler” to play with.
Before the Civil War, enslaved Black people were encouraged to learn the fiddle to provide entertainment on the plantations. After Emancipation, the harmonica gradually overtook the fiddle in Black rural communities. Bailey’s timing was perfect, coming in at the height of this trend. His original composition, “Pan American Blues,” is thought to be the first recording ever made of a blues harmonica solo.
For Bailey, everything in the world around him was music. He thought of the animals on the farm and other natural sounds as elements he should incorporate into his playing. After he moved to Nashville at age 18, he absorbed everything he heard there. From the early jazz of Louis Armstrong to the clatter of trains and streetcars, he blended all of it into his unique harmonica style.
As you can hear on “Davidson County Blues,” he was comfortable jumping quickly from high to low registers and back. He could change the texture of his sound for half a beat and had absolute control over how many notes he was playing at a time.
Not long after arriving in Nashville, he became a recurring guest on the radio station WDAD. Soon he went down the street to WSM and joined the (otherwise all-white) Possum Hunters, led by Dr. Humphrey Bate, one of the first groups to play the show that would become the “Grand Ole Opry.” The Possum Hunters were billed as an “Old-Time show,” and listeners would have thought of Bailey’s music as “hillbilly.”
Very few solo instrumentalists got to do regular sets at the Opry, but Bailey was an exception. He would bring out an old Coca-Cola crate, set it upside down, and rest his right foot on it. His solo harmonica set might last for as long as 15 minutes, leaving both the live and radio audiences mesmerized. Over the years, he added in a few songs, which he accompanied on guitar.
There was nothing he couldn’t make the harmonica do. He even developed a way of whooping and singing in the beats between phrases on his harp. This technique features on one of his most popular tunes, “Fox Chase.”
Although he did compose most of the melodies that made him famous, Bailey also charmed his fans with distinctive interpretations of some of their favorite traditional tunes. For example, he put his stamp on the cowboy classic “Red River Valley.”
In his version, the famous melody is always clear and present while he simultaneously adds in bursts of off-beat harmonies that also provide toe-tapping rhythm. You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? That’s what you’re supposed to do with a harmonica.” Sure, after Bailey did it in the 1920s and 1930s, that’s what everyone thought of as the standard for harmonica playing!
Although Bailey lived until 1982, his career effectively ended in 1941, when he became collateral damage in a legal dispute between ASCAP and BMI. The result of the suit prevented him from playing much of his usual repertoire, so WSM (which still ran the Grand Ole Opry show) fired him. Unable to get his performing career off the ground again, or perhaps too deflated to try, he spent much of his remaining decades shining shoes. Some have speculated that WSM used the lawsuit as an excuse to get rid of Bailey in an industry that had almost no other Black stars.
It’s hard to overstate Bailey’s popularity at its height. Roy Acuff took him on tour to boost ticket sales. Bill Monroe did the same. In fact, Acuff was responsible for bringing him back to the Opry for an unscheduled guest appearance in 1947 to sing “Kansas City Blues.” This recording is doubly rare for preserving Bailey singing a song and playing the guitar. Although he had done this at the Opry regularly during his heyday, no recordings earlier than this one exist.
Without some determination on the part of music historians, Bailey’s legacy might have been lost. In the 1970s, the Tennessee Folklore Society convinced him to come into the studio and record some tracks. The result was an album called The Legendary DeFord Bailey, which included this lively rendition of “Lost John.”
The work to preserve Bailey’s contributions to American music continued after his death. In 1993, David C. Morton and Charles K. Wolfe released a book called DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music. That was followed in 2005 by a PBS documentary about Bailey, the same year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. On the Hall of Fame website, Bailey is described as “a bridge between the rural folk music of his youth and the modern world of commercial popular music.”
He was a virtuoso on his instrument and an all-around great entertainer.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Marilyn K. Morton.