DeFord Bailey (December 14, 1899 – July 2, 1982) was an American country music star from the 1920s until 1941. Bailey was both the first performer to be introduced as playing on the Grand Ole Opry and also the first African-American performer on the show. He played several instruments but is best known for his harmonica tunes.
A grandson of slaves, Bailey was born near the Bellwood community in Smith County, Tennessee, and learned to play theharmonica at the age of three when he contracted polio (or as it was called at the time 'infantile paralysis'). During his year-long confinement to bed he developed his distinctive style of playing. In 1918, he moved to Nashville performing locally as an amateur. His first documented radio appearance was June 19, 1926 on WSM in Nashville. On December 10, 1927, he premiered his trademark number, "Pan American Blues" on a show 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. Hayexclaimed 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.’”
Bailey also had several records issued in 1927-1928, all of them harmonica solos. In 1927 he recorded for Brunswick records in New York City, while in 1928 he recorded eight sides for Victor in Nashville, of which three were issued on several labels, including Victor, Bluebird and RCA. Emblematic of the ambiguity of Bailey's position as a recording artist is the fact his arguably greatest recording, John Henry, was released separately in both RCA's 'race' and 'hillbilly' series.
marker near Bailey's birthplace in Smith County
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 many 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 many difficulties in finding food and accommodation because of the 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 appearances 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. Later that year, Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on November 15, 2005. Joining him in the 2005 class were country-pop superstar Glen Campbell and the band Alabama. On June 27, 2007, the DeFord Bailey Tribute Garden was dedicated at the George Washington Carver Food Park in Nashville. The Encyclopedia of Country Music called him "the most significant black country star before World War II."