BY YANCY BELCHER
February is Black History month, a time that we reflect upon the great achievements of African Americans. This region has a very rich African American history. People such as the noted educator W.E.B. Dubois, Maggie Porter and Thomas Rutling, the original members of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Howlin’ Wolf the great blues singer who influenced everyone from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones, have called this region home.
Last February the Wilson County Black History hosted a fundraiser for the Roy Bailey African American Museum. The theme of the event was a Celebration of the Arts. One of the people featured at the event was an African American named DeFord Bailey. DeFord Bailey was a harmonica virtuoso that many people proclaim to be the first star of the Grand Old Opry. Before Charley Pride sang “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and Darius Rucker sang “Wagon Wheel,” DeFord Bailey was singing songs such as the “Pan American Blues,” and the “Fox Chase” on the Grand Old Opry.
On November 28, 1925 the WSM Barn Dance began broadcasting in Nashville on the 5th Floor of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company. It wasn’t renamed the Grand Old Opry until December 10, 1927. That night the Barn Dance followed NBC’s classical music show entitled the Music Appreciation Hour, which featured selections from the Grand Opera. The Barn Dance announcer and program director George D. Hay came on the air and introduced DeFord Bailey. “For the past hour, you’ve been listening to music taken largely from Grand Opera. From now on, we will present the ‘Grand Old Opry’.” Bailey then stepped to the microphone and played “The Pan American Blues.” He became the first African American to perform on the Opry.
Deford Bailey was born in 1899 in the small community of Bellwood. Bellwood straddles the Wilson County and Smith County line, located near the old Rome Road and Bellwood Road. Bailey was a grandson to a freed slave who had fought for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Bailey stated to researcher David Morton, that he began learning harmonica as a young child: “My folks didn’t give no rattler, they gave me a harp.” His family was very musical consisting of several members who played a wide array of musical instruments.
During Bailey’s early years he became very schooled in traditional folk songs of the day. He later called this type of music “Black Hillbilly Music.” He popularized classic songs such as “John Henry” and “Lost John.” These are songs that were passed down from generation to generation. Bailey is known for his harmonica playing but he was a multi talented instrumentalist. He was able to play banjo, guitar, mandolin, and violin.
Bailey’s big break came when he met Dr. Humphrey Bate, a country doctor from Castellian Springs, Tennessee. Bate was a harmonica player and string band leader who performed on the WSM Barn Dance in 1925. Bate persuaded Bailey to play with him one night on the Barn Dance.
Soon thereafter Bailey was making regular appearances and became one of their most popular performers. George D. Hay gave him his famous nickname, “The Harmonica Wizard.”
In 1932, WSM radio signal expanded to 50,000 watts stretching their audience from the Rocky Mountains to the eastern seaboard. With the added exposure, Bailey became a huge star. In addition to the appearances on the radio, he performed all across the South and Midwest in traveling shows sponsored by the Grand Old Opry. He was known as quite the showman, as he often played the guitar in an upside down style, he performed yo-yo tricks, and would play percussion with sticks and bones.
Unfortunately, Bailey’s radio career ended in 1941 after a dispute over the licensing royalties between ASCAP and the radio industry. Due to the contract dispute, radio stations were not able to play ASCAP songs without facing large fines. When Bailey insisted upon playing the audience favorites, WSM let him go. Bailey occasionally played the harp but he made only rare appearances throughout the rest of his life, dying on July 2, 1982.
Posthumously, Bailey has received numerous awards and honors. In 2005, Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame with such notables as Glen Campbell and the group Alabama. Aditionally, there is the DeFord Bailey Garden at the George Washington Carver Food Park in Nashville. Nashville Public Television even produced the documentary “DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost.” The Encyclopedia of Country Music called him “the most significant black country star before World War II.”
Mayor Phil Bredesen declared that every December 14 on Bailey’s birthday it would be DeFord Bailey Day in Nashville, Tennessee.
This Black History month when we are honoring the great achievements of African Americans lets remember our own local pioneer, DeFord Bailey “The Harmonica Wizard.”