DeFord Bailey (1899-1982)

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Country music pioneer DeFord Bailey was born in 1899 at Carthage, Smith County, Tennessee. Stricken with infantile paralysis at the age of three, he was given a harmonica as a means of amusement. Bailey overcame polio, although he had a deformed back and never grew taller than four feet, ten inches. However, his skill with the harmonica and his musical talent gained Bailey renown in the emerging field of country music.

During his youth Bailey composed harmonica tunes based on the sound of rushing locomotives. By the time he was a teenager he was hired by a white storekeeper to entertain customers with his harmonica. He later moved to Nashville where he continued playing the harmonica for street audiences.

On December 6, 1925 Bailey won second place with his rendition of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” in a French harp contest on radio station WDAD in Nashville. Soon after, Bailey made his first appearance on Nashville’s WSM Radio, after overcoming some racial opposition from the station’s director. Twenty-six year old Bailey was given the title “Harmonica Wizard.”

In April 1927 Bailey recorded eight titles for Brunswick label in New York. On October 2, 1928, he recorded for Victor records during a Nashville session. “Ice Water Blues/Davidson County Blues” became so popular that the Victor label released it three times.

DeFord Bailey toured the South with the leading stars of the Opry in the 1930s including Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon, and Bill Monroe. He was well received by the country music fans but racial segregation laws caused problems in hotels and restaurants. To get a hotel room he often had to pose as a baggage boy for the white performers.

Bailey’s popularity peaked in the late 1930s. During one three-hour Opry show he was allowed a rare twenty-five-minute performance. By 1941, however, he was off the Opry and for the next thirty years shined shoes at his small shop in Nashville. He reemerged as a performer in the mid 1960s, playing on local television and in 1965 made a rare concert appearance at Vanderbilt University. By the 1970s he appeared again at the Grand Ole Opry and on December 14, 1974, Bailey celebrated his 75th birthday at the auditorium. He last performed at the Grand Ole Opry House on April 3, 1982.

DeFord Bailey died in Nashville at the age of 82 on July 2, 1982. On June 23, 1983, the country music industry celebrated DeFord Bailey as the first African-American star of the Grand Ole Opry. The mayor unveiled a plaque in Bailey’s honor, and a monument was placed at his grave site in Nashville’s Greenwood Cemetery. Bailey’s memorabilia was presented to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.