Dubbed as “The Harmonica Wizard,” DeFord Bailey was one of the most influential harmonica players in the first half of the 19th century. Also, he was one of the Grand Ole Opry’s most popular early performers, and country’s first African American star. Unfortunately, though, his achievements and incomparable talents weren’t given much importance in American music history. But here at Country Thang Daily, we recognize and promote real talents like DeFord Bailey.
Bailey was born in the humble town of Smith County, Tennessee, on December 14, 1989. He lost his mother soon after his birth. So, he was fostered by his aunt Barbara and her husband Clark Odum. He was struck by polio when he was three that stunted his growth and left his back somewhat bent. His physical stature, however, did not discourage his determination to hone his talent.
Bailey naturally developed his skill in playing harmonica since he grew up in a musical family, who played what he called “Black hillbilly music.” This is a tradition of secular string-band music shared by rural black and white musician alike. Bailey further developed a keen ear for music with the sounds that surrounded him- the baying of hounds chasing foxes, the chugging of trains, and the different sounds of animals coming from the farms and forests.
Moving to Nashville
Bailey tried to find his luck in Nashville in 1918. He spent his first six years in the prominent city doing jobs such as drugstore helper, elevator operator and being a houseboy. He still continued to expand his musical knowledge, he learned jazz, blues, and pop songs from recordings and live shows. Little by little, he became a bridge between rural folk music and the modern world of commercial popular music.
In September 1925, Bailey later met Fred “Pop” Exum, who was fascinated by his harmonica playing and began featuring him on a radio station. This exposure also led his meeting with harmonica player and string- band leader Dr. Humphrey Bate. The doctor trained Bailey and eventually brought him on his shows. The young man’s dazzling renditions of “Fox Chase,” “Pan American Blues,” and other tunes became instant hits. From 1927 to 1941, he was one of the pioneer artists who graced the stage of Grand Ole Opry.
Before his death on July 2, 1982, Bailey spent the last peaceful years of his life in his home in Nashville.