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: “They seen the day was coming when they'd have to pay me right…and they used the excuse about me playing the same old tunes.”Opry Years
Getting on the Opry
Playing on the Opry
Going on Tour
Leaving the Opry

DeFord Bailey, Photo copyright Dennis WileLeaving the Opry

In 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.

Also 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.

To 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.

Hurt, 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

DeFord's remembrance of the events was very different. While he strongly disagreed with Hay's explanation, he didn't blame Hay for being fired.

"He had a boss too. It was the company. It's terrible for a company to say things like that about me. That I didn't know no songs. I read between the lines. They seen the day was coming when they'd have to pay me right … and they used the excuse about me playing the same old tunes."

This 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 played 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."

Alcyone 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.'"
- Alcyone Bate Beasley

DeFord's 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 and
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)


EARLY YEARS | OPRY YEARS | POST-OPRY YEARS

Opry Years
1| 2 | 3 | 4

 

 
TIMELINE | BIOGRAPHY | MUSIC
WEB CREDITS

© 2002 Nashville Public Television, Inc.
All rights reserved