DeFord Bailey walked onto the Grand Ole Opry stage with a slight limp. Decked out in a bow tie, pocket square, and polished shoes, he stood on a Coca-Cola crate to offset his 4-foot-11-inch stature. It was 1936. Bailey looked out at the audience, sitting on wooden benches in the Opry's Dixie Tabernacle, just east of Nashville's downtown core. He carried a harmonica, or "a harp," as it was often referred to at the time, in his left hand. When he brought the harmonica to his mouth, he played a tune that sounded like the bold whistle of a locomotive train. For 15 minutes, he played a unique blend of country music and blues, bringing smiles to the eyes of the people in the dusty old tabernacle. Aside from his obvious talent and innovative harmonica technique, Bailey broke cultural barriers by becoming the first black country music star, and he was one of the most beloved Opry musicians of his time. He played harmonica for the Grand Ole Opry from 1925 to 1941, and toured the country with his white Opry peers during the heyday of Jim Crow.
Yet it would be decades before Bailey's pioneering contributions to country music were widely recognized — and the accomplished musician died penniless.
Bailey was on welfare, living alone in a public housing complex for the elderly, when my father-in-law, David Morton, who worked at Nashville's Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, first encountered him. Morton wrote a profile of Bailey for the residents' free newsletter. The two struck up a friendship, and Morton would go on to work as Bailey's manager and later write the biography DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country Music alongside musicologist and leading country music expert Charles K. Wolfe. When they met, Bailey was at a low point in his life, hard of hearing and dwelling on past injustices.
"He was real wary of any kind of performing at that point in his life," Morton says. "There were two things he wanted me to do, and I promised him I would. One was to mark his grave. … He wanted a proper tombstone. And secondly, he wanted me to tell his story. He said, 'Tell the world about this little black man. He ain't no fool.'"
Bailey was born in a small wood-framed farmhouse in Smith County, Tennessee, on a snowy day in December 1899. His mother, Mary, coined the name DeFord from a combination of two of her favorite schoolteachers' names: Mr. DeBarry and Mrs. Ford. Just over a year later, Mary died of an unknown illness. DeFord Bailey's father, John Henry, asked his younger sister, Barbara Lou, and her husband, Clark, to move in and assist with taking care of the child. From then on, DeFord Bailey referred to Barbara Lou and Clark as "mommy and daddy."
At age 3, Bailey was diagnosed with polio. For over a year, he stayed in bed, unable to walk. Although he was partially paralyzed, Bailey was able to move his head and his arms. It was during this bedridden year that he began to play several instruments. In Morton and Wolfe's book, Bailey is quoted as saying, "My daddy would give me a harp, or hang an old guitar or banjo around my neck, and let me pick on it for hours at a time. I couldn't do much else."
Bailey came from a family of musicians. His birth mother, Mary, played guitar, and his adopted daddy, Clark, played banjo and fiddle. The Baileys often performed together at church events, family celebrations, and local barn dances. They cherished black hillbilly music — a blend of blues and country derived from slave spirituals and West African lute music, an instrument that was a predecessor to the banjo.
In her book Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, University of Louisville professor Diane Pecknold discusses the prevalence of black hillbilly music prior to World War II. "Since at least the mid-1950s, scholars and discographers have been aware of a handful of prewar hillbilly recordings featuring racially integrated bands or African-American artists, but these records have received surprisingly little scholarly attention," Pecknold explains. "[They are often] treated as historical anomalies … but otherwise unimportant curiosities."
Bailey was highly attentive to this music and other sounds of the rural South where he grew up. He spent much of his time listening to animals like sheep, cows, dogs, and chickens, trying to recreate the sounds they made on the harmonica. "I'm just like a microphone," Bailey recalled in Robert K. Oremann's book Behind the Grand Ole Opry Curtain: Tales of Romance and Tragedy. "I pick up everything I hear around me."
Bailey recovered from his bout with polio, but the virus had stunted his growth and led to a slight deformity of his back, which caused him to limp. As an adult, he weighed just 100 pounds. Yet he later said that the illness had been a blessing in a way. He told Morton, "If I'd been stout, I'd have laid that harp down when I was a boy. Since I wasn't, I stuck with it."
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.