A proper memorial for DeFord Bailey, who changed Country music
May 2, 2020 8:44 PM   Subscribe

In the fall of 1928, George D. Hay opened the newly syndicated WSM Barn Dance, following a classical performance that attempted to mimic a train* by saying “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.” DeFord Bailey then stepped onto the stage and played “Pan American Blues,” one of his trademark tunes, emulating the sound of a locomotive speeding down the tracks on—making him Grand Ole Opry's first musician, and first artist to record in Nashville (Tennessean). Despite making these and other country music landmarks, Bailey has become largely forgotten. Towards the end of his life, he had two wishes: a proper gravestone (Find a Grave) and for someone to tell his story (Narratively).

* It's unclear which classical piece was performed, so I just picked the first example (which is a dead link) from The Guardian's The 10 best: pieces inspired by trains.

More from the Narratively biography:
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.”
In 1927 and 1928, Bailey released 11 sides, available here in one YouTube video with timestamps and additional track information.

Throughout the 1930s, Bailey toured the country with other Grand Ole Opry musicians, but while the white musicians stayed in hotels, DeFord would be snuck in as a bell boy or spend the night in the lobby, or in near-by funeral parlors. The white musicians would sneak him food out of restaurants, or take detours of up to 50 miles to find an establishment that would allow him in.

During the height of his popularity, he was allowed a 25-minute performance on the three-hour Opry show. By 1941, he was off the Opry and beginning a 30-year career of shining shoes at his shop (African American Registry). Bailey said he wanted to play new songs but Hay wanted him to stick to his classics, while Hay said that Bailey wouldn't play new tunes, and because of the ASCAP Boycott (One Tube Radio), Bailey wasn't allowed to play from his back catalog, so he wasn't on the air any more.

In 1947, DeFord Bailey made an unscheduled guest appearance on Roy Acuff's Weather House Grand Ole Opry segment, singing "Kansas City Blues". This is the earliest known recording of DeFord playing guitar and singing, something he was known to do during his tenure as a Grand Ole Opry member (YT). During World War II, the Opry included Bailey in a film made for GIs.

Then in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Bailey's career was remembered. He made an appearance on a local syndicated television show, "Night Train," possibly during the period when his son, R&B Musician DeFord Bailey Jr., was a regular on the show in 1963-68 (Music Row obituary). His backing band on the show included the guitarist who later became known as Jimi Hendrix. The latter’s guitar style was reportedly influenced by Bailey’s, and Hendrix was close to the Bailey family, often eating and visiting with DeFord Senior at family get-togethers (PBS, archived). The elder Bailey gave a concert at Vanderbilt University in 1965.

DeFord Bailey was again invited back to the Grand Ole Opry, as seen here, performing "Fox Chase" in 1967. He returned in 1974, for what became the Opry's first annual Old Timers' Show. This may be a playlist of the audio, though the year is listed as 1973. He came back in 1975, for the second annual Old Timers' Show (Tennessean).

Then in 1982, DeFord Bailey died in his daughter's arms at her home. He was 82. (Tennessean article, reprinted)

Previously: DeFord Bailey, American musician, in which flapjax at midnite documents Bailey's excellence in train imitation, and other notable performances. His link to PBS' biography is now a dead link, but it was captured by the Internet Archive, and now PBS has a half hour special titled DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost from 2005.
posted by filthy light thief (3 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I forgot to include some more of his belated recognition: posted by filthy light thief at 9:02 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]

The Bailey/Hendrix link blew my mind
posted by scruss at 5:07 AM on May 3

I hadn’t heard that recording of Kansas City Blues before. Thanks for including it.

The Bailey/Hendrix link blew my mind

Same here!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:46 AM on May 3

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