on the Opry
1926, DeFord was a regular on the weekly show. Judge Hay, who
to find colorful nicknames for all of his performers, dubbed DeFord
"The Harmonica Wizard." In fact, the Harmonica Wizard's
music inspired the show's famous name--the Grand Ole Opry.
In December of 1927, an NBC national opera show that preceded the
weekly "Barn Dance" signed off playing a classical piece
imitating a locomotive. Judge Hay, not above a sarcastic remark,
and looking for a clever transition to the local acts on WSM, introduced
DeFord Bailey and his train song "Pan American Blues."
After DeFord performed, Judge Hay said: "For
the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from
Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present "The Grand Ole
1928, DeFord had settled into a weekly routine with the Opry, appearing
twice as often as any other performer. In early Opry years, the
show embraced all types of indigenous music and made no attempts
to limit itself to an all white audience. In fact, efforts were
made to attract a "colored" audience. The Opry and all
other WSM shows were designed to sell National Life insurance. A
large portion of National Life's business consisted of small policies
popular with both white and black low-income customers. Judge Hay
told DeFord that "half of National
Life's money comes from colored people and that DeFord had helped
make those sales."
the years, however, the Opry became more identified with music of
the rural white south. The cast of the show was all white, with
the exception of DeFord. Occasionally other black performers, including
the Fisk Jubilees Singers and the Carthage Quartet, were featured
on the show, but DeFord was the only one of any long-term duration.
The combination of his musical skills and his diminutive, non-threatening
physical appearance may have opened doors for him that were closed
for others of his race.
November of 1928, DeFord was recruited by WNOX, a smaller station
in Knoxville, Tennessee. Unhappy with his salary and the paternalistic
treatment at WSM, he left Nashville briefly. He returned to Nashville
in 1929 and reunited with the Grand Ole Opry. He was able to negotiate
a better salary. A few months later he met and married Ida Lee Jones.
the coming years, DeFord and Ida Lee would have three children.
DeFord would continue to make his living at the Opry as a professional
musician, but during the Depression, he looked for ways to supplement
his Opry salary. Around 1930 he opened a barbeque stand and a shoeshine
stand, and he also became a landlord, routinely renting out rooms
in his house. Even with this additional income, he still needed
more money. One of the only ways country musicians made significant
money was to go on personal appearance tours. These tours would
prove to be his biggest triumphs and trials.
was known only as a radio star on the Grand Ole Opry and most of
the audience did not know he was a "colored
man." His race may have been known in the black community,
but it was not mentioned on air. This was not accidental. Judge
Hay believed Opry fans would "blow
us out" if DeFord's race was publicized. His
concern proved wrong. >>
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)
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