Culture  /  Biography

The Unsung Black Musician Who Changed Country Music

From the moment DeFord Bailey stepped onto a stage in Nashville, country music would never be the same. Decades after his death he finally got his due.

DeFord Bailey walked onto the Grand Ole Opry stage with a slight limp. Decked out in a bow tie, pocket square and polished shoes, he stood on a Coca-Cola crate to offset his 4-foot-11-inch stature. It was 1936. Bailey looked out at the audience, sitting on wooden benches in the Opry’s Dixie Tabernacle, just east of Nashville’s downtown core. He carried a harmonica, or “a harp,” as it was often referred to at the time, in his left hand. When he brought the harmonica to his mouth, he played a tune that sounded like the bold whistle of a locomotive train. For 15 minutes, he played a unique blend of country music and blues, bringing smiles to the eyes of the people in the dusty old tabernacle. Aside from his obvious talent and innovative harmonica technique, Bailey broke cultural barriers by becoming the first black country music star, and he was one of the most beloved Opry musicians of his time. He played harmonica for the Grand Ole Opry from 1925 to 1941, and toured the country with his white Opry peers during the heyday of Jim Crow. Yet it would be decades before Bailey’s pioneering contributions to country music were widely recognized — and the accomplished musician died penniless.

Bailey was on welfare, living alone in a public housing complex for the elderly, when my father-in-law, David Morton, who worked at Nashville’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, first encountered him. Morton wrote a profile of Bailey for the residents’ free newsletter. The two struck up a friendship, and Morton would go on to work as Bailey’s manager and later write the biography DeFord Bailey: A Black Star In Early Country Music alongside musicologist and leading country music expert Charles K. Wolfe. When they met, Bailey was at a low point in his life, hard of hearing and dwelling on past injustices.

“He was real wary of any kind of performing at that point in his life,” Morton says. “There were two things he wanted me to do, and I promised him I would. One was to mark his grave. … He wanted a proper tombstone. And secondly, he wanted me to tell his story. He said, ‘Tell the world about this little black man. He ain’t no fool.’”