DeFORD BAILEY: A LEGEND LOST Photos of DeFord Bailey Courtesy of, L-R: Dennis Wile; Les Leverett; David Morton



DeFord Bailey: “Whatever I played, it had such a mellow and peculiar sound. Like a man preaching."Playing Style
DeFord's Playing Style
Influencing Others


DeFord's Playing Style

DeFord remembered Judge Hay once saying on air,

"'I'm letting you know, DeFord Bailey is the best harp player that was ever knowed out of four hundred years, and still is.'"

DeFord offered some thoughts on what made his style so unique.

"My timing is different from theirs. I play double. I got a double sound. I can't play single. It doesn't sound good to me."

" You can't x-ray it or do blueprints like a doctor or engineer to understand it. It's just in me. I can't help it. I don't ask nobody to help me or show me how to do it. I just do it. You hear something all the time with my music. Other people's music is good, but it's missing something, I think. I add time to vacant space."

DeFord's hands holding a harmonica attached to a megaphone. Photo courtesy of David Morton Personal Collection.While playing on the Opry, DeFord often stood on a Coca-Cola crate in order to reach the microphone. When out on the road, DeFord generally carried a megaphone, which he designed himself and attached to his harp to use as an alternative to a microphone or public address system. DeFord usually held his harp with one hand while playing. He made it look effortless, moving his wrist in a smooth, rhythmical manner and never jerking his hand back and forth.

His advice to other harmonica players:

"Hold a harp like I do and then move your hand like power steering on a car, not like standard steering. It's important to keep your hand smooth."

Influencing Others

DeFord became the most successful artist to share the tradition of black hillbilly music with a wider audience. Considered the leading harmonica player in the first half of the 20th Century, DeFord influenced other players such as Sonny Terry, who toured with Woody Guthrie and who recorded "The Fox Chase" for Belafonte's black music anthology set, The Long Road to Freedom. Terry once said DeFord Bailey was his source and inspiration. Musicologists and music historians have said that no one has ever played close to his style and depth.

Opry Historian Charles Wolfe said of DeFord,

"He was one of the first great innovators. Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, these are all people who have taken an older music and made it new again. DeFord tried to do that and he did it very well but he wasn't allowed to finish his job."

- Charles Wolfe


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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