-By Cowboy Anton
"An accomplished harmonica player, as well as a banjoist, guitarist, and vocalist, he became one of the first stars of the Opry, and in the 1920s and '30s he made a handful of fantastic recordings (by himself and with guitarist Sam McGee) that showed both blues and country influences."
A grandson of slaves, Bailey was born near the Bellwood community in Smith County, Tennessee, and learned to play the harmonica at the age of three, when he contracted polio (or, as it was called at the time, infantile paralysis). He was confined to bed for a year, during which he began developing his distinctive style of playing. In 1918, he moved to Nashville and performed locally as an amateur.
Bailey's first radio appearance (as documented in radio program schedules published in newspapers) was on June 19, 1926, on Nashville's WSM. On December 10, 1927, he debuted his trademark song, "Pan American Blues" (named for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad's Pan-American), on a program then known as the WSM Barn Dance. At that time Barn Dance aired after NBC's classical music show, the Music Appreciation Hour. While introducing Bailey, WSM station manager and announcer George D. Hay exclaimed on-air, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’” "Pan American Blues" was the first recording of a harmonica blues solo.
Several records by Bailey were issued in 1927 and 1928, all of them harmonica solos. In 1927 he recorded for Brunswick Records in New York City, and in 1928 he recorded eight sides for Victor in Nashville, three of which were issued on Victor, Bluebird and RCA. Emblematic of the ambiguity of Bailey's position as a recording artist is the fact that his arguably greatest recording, "John Henry", was released by RCA separately in both its "race" series and its "hillbilly" series. In addition to his well-known harmonica, Bailey also played the guitar, bones, and banjo.
Bailey was a pioneer member of the WSM Grand Ole Opry and one of its most popular performers, appearing on the program from 1927 to 1941. During this period he toured with major country stars, including Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff. Like other black stars of his day traveling in the South and West, he faced difficulties in finding food and accommodations because of discriminatory Jim Crow laws.
Bailey was fired by WSM in 1941 because of a licensing conflict with BMI-ASCAP, which prevented him from playing his best-known tunes on the radio. This effectively ended his performance career, and he spent the rest of his life shining shoes and renting out rooms in his home to make a living. Though he continued to play the harp, he almost never performed publicly. One of his rare performances occurred in 1974, when he agreed to make one more appearance on the Opry. This became the occasion for the Opry's first annual Old Timers' Show.
He died on July 2, 1982, in Nashville, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery there.
In 2005, Nashville Public Television produced the documentary DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost. The documentary was broadcast nationally through PBS. Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on November 15, 2005. The DeFord Bailey Tribute Garden at the George Washington Carver Food Park in Nashville was dedicated on June 27, 2007. The Encyclopedia of Country Music called him "the most significant black country star before World War II."
"Here's Bailey in the late '60s, playing two of his classics—"Fox Chase" and "Pan American Blues." He hadn't lost any of his virtuosity, and it's great to actually get to see footage of such a seminal artist."