the spring of 1941, DeFord was about to begin his sixteenth season
with the Grand Ole Opry. The NBC network had been broadcasting the
show for about a year and a half, and the Opry was changing, becoming
more slick and professional. DeFord appeared only on a handful of
the network broadcasts. The slick new "uptown" acts that
had arrived in the mid-1930's appeared on that portion of the show,
while the old-timers played on the non-network portion.
affecting DeFord's appearances on the show was a licensing issue
with ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers),
which required venues to pay fees for the use of copyrighted music.
ASCAP's contract with radio was coming up for renewal in 1940, and
in the process ASCAP was attempting to double its usage fees. Radio
networks were furious and were trying to boycott all songs copyrighted
by ASCAP. DeFord was hit hard by the ban because most of his repertoire
was copyrighted by ASCAP.
counter the loss of ASCAP material, radio broadcasters, including
those responsible for the Opry, created a new organization called
BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) and began creating a catalog
of music designed primarily for radio. Besides countering ASCAP,
another reason the Opry may have been insistent on creating and
licensing new songs to BMI was because one of the original six hundred
stockholders in BMI was WSM's Edwin Craig. He made it clear that
performers on his station were expected to do their part by creating
new songs that could be copyrighted and licensed through BMI.
puzzled, and offended by the Opry's insistence that he now create
new material, DeFord continued to perform his old tunes. By the
end of July, the boycott was over and NBC signed an agreement with
ASCAP. Things returned to the way they were, with one exception.
After May 24, 1941, DeFord's name no longer appeared on the show's
line-up. He had been let go.
The firing of DeFord Bailey is one of the most controversial aspects
of Opry history. Judge Hay offered his own explanation in his book
A Story of the Grand Ole Opry: (1946)
"That brings us to DeFord Bailey, a little crippled
colored boy who was a bright feature of our show for about
fifteen years. Like some members of his race and other races,
DeFord was lazy. He knew about a dozen numbers, which he put
on the air and recorded for a major company, but he refused
to learn any more, even though his reward was great. He was
our mascot and is still loved by the entire company. We gave
him a whole year's notice to learn some more tunes, but he
would not. When we were forced to give him his final notice,
DeFord said, without malice, I knowed it waz comin',
Judge, I knowed it waz comin'."
- Judge Hay
remembrance of the events was very different. While he strongly
disagreed with Hay's explanation, he didn't blame Hay for being
|"He had a boss too. It was the company. It's
terrible for a company to say things like that about me. That
know no songs. I read between the lines. They seen the day
was coming when they'd have to pay me right
used the excuse about me playing the same old tunes."
charge was unfounded and it didn't seem to apply to other Opry members.
DeFord played a certain body of work mainly because, for years,
the Opry management insisted that he play those tunes. DeFord remembered:
|"I told them I got tired of blowing that
same thing, but I had to go along with 'em you know. Gene Austin
on Saturday night when I was there. Played 'Blue Heaven' on
his guitar. Well, I come back next week and had that down on
my harp. They said, "No. Naw, don't play that. That's
their song. You play blues like you've been playing."
Bate Beasley, the daughter of DeFord's first mentor, Dr. Humphrey
Bate, once said,
|"On today's Opry, and on the Opry
for generations, most performers do exactly what DeFord was
let go for. They
play the tunes they are best known for. Who can imagine Roy
Acuff on the Opry not playing either 'Wabash Cannonball' or
'Great Speckled Bird.'"
departure from the Opry has never made sense to anyone familiar
with the Opry history. Musicologist and foremost Opry historian
Charles Wolfe said,
" It is essentially a mystery
one of the great tragedies in American music."
- 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)
YEARS | OPRY YEARS | POST-OPRY
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