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DEFORD BAILEY: A LEGEND LOST Photos of DeFord Bailey Courtesy of, L-R: Dennis Wile; Les Leverett; David Morton
 
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Playing on the Opry

"Cousin Wilbur" Bill Westbrook with Bailey wearing a WSM cap. PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID MORTON PERSONAL COLLECTIONThroughout 1926, DeFord was a regular on the weekly show. Judge Hay, who liked 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 Opry."

By 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."

Over 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.

In 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.

DeFord Bailey's children, L-R, Dezoral, Christine, and DeFord, Jr.In 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.

DeFord 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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