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DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost Photos of DeFord Bailey Courtesy of, L-R: Dennis Wile; Les Leverett; David Morton
 
TIMELINE
BIOGRAPHY
MUSIC

BIOGRAPHY
EARLY YEARS | OPRY YEARS | POST-OPRY YEARS

DeFord: "My folks didn't give me no rattler, they gave me a harp, and I ain't been without one since."Early Years
Growing up in Smith County
Moving to Nashville

Growing up in Smith County

DeFord as a youth; COURTESY OF DAVID MORTON PERSONAL COLLECTIONDeFord Bailey was born on December 14, 1899 in Smith County, Tennessee, about forty miles east of downtown Nashville. DeFord's mother, Mary Reedy, named him after two of her former schoolteachers, Mr. DeBerry and Mrs. Ford. When he was a little over a year old, his mother died of an unknown illness. DeFord's father, John Henry, had a younger sister named Barbara Lou who helped care for DeFord. Gradually, she took over complete care of DeFord and became his foster mother. Barbara Lou gave DeFord his first harmonica (or mouth harp).

"My folks didn't give me no rattler, they gave me a harp, and I ain't been without one since."

At the age of three, DeFord contracted infantile paralysis (polio). At the time, the disease was almost always fatal. He was confined to bed for a year and was only able to move his head and his arms. It was at this time that he started to develop his playing style. He would lie in bed and listen to the sounds of dogs howling, of wild geese flying overhead, of the wind blowing through cracks in the wall, and most importantly, of trains rumbling in the distance. Eventually he recovered, although the disease severely stunted his growth and left him with a slight hunchback.

DeFord Bailey: PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID MORTON PERSONAL COLLECTIONMusic continued to be a large part of DeFord's upbringing in Smith County. Most members of his family played instruments and his grandfather, Lewis Bailey, was a champion fiddler. The tunes they played were part of a rich tradition of string band music, a style DeFord called black hillbilly music.

[My family] "could all sing and dance. Everyone could play at least one instrument."

Moving to Nashville

In 1918, DeFord's biological father died and DeFord left rural middle Tennessee and joined Barbara Lou and his foster father, Clark Odum, in Nashville. His foster parents were working for Mr. and Mrs. J.C. Bradford, one of Nashville's prominent families, and Clark arranged for DeFord to become a houseboy. At first, DeFord's work included running errands, helping set the table, and cleaning and polishing silver, but when Mrs. Bradford learned of DeFord's musical talent, his role changed.

"One day I was in the yard and she heard me playing. She said, 'I didn't know you could play like that. How long have you been playing?' I told her, 'all my life,' From then on she had me stand in the corner of the room and play my harp for her company. I'd wear a white coat, black leather tie, and white hat. I'd have a good shoeshine. That all suits me. That's my make-up. I never did no more good work. My work was playing the harp."

In 1923, DeFord's foster mother, Barbara Lou, died. The entire family was devastated, especially DeFord. With her death, the family began to drift apart. DeFord's foster father moved to Detroit, where thousands of other southerners, black and white, were going to make their way in the new Henry Ford automobile industry, while DeFord stayed in Nashville and worked a number of odd jobs for several years.

During one of DeFord's jobs as an elevator operator in the Hitchcock building in downtown Nashville, a secretary from the National Life and Accident Insurance Company heard him play the harmonica. She hired him to entertain at a formal dinner at the company's new building. He thought little of it at the time, but later when he looked back, he realized that it was an odd foreshadowing of things to come. >>


Source for the material in this section, including excerpts:
David C. Morton with Charles K. Wolfe, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991)


EARLY YEARS | OPRY YEARS | POST-OPRY YEARS