Christine L. Craig is a woman with a mission: she wants to see her father, harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey, granted his rightful place in the pantheon of country music greats. Bailey, who died in 1982 at the age of 82, is the only major figure from the early days of the Grand Ole Opry who hasn’t been inducted into Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s Craig’s opinion, and that of many others, that Bailey’s exclusion from the hall would count as a glaring historical omission even if he hadn’t also been the first black star of a musical idiom generally understood to be a white thing.
A retired Chicago public school teacher, the 66-year-old Craig travels to Nashville several times a year to visit her family and, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to lobby for her father’s posthumous induction to the hall of fame. When the hall officially reopened in its newly constructed second home in 2001, Craig was there to present her father’s case to television crews and anyone else who would listen. “We really thought he would make it this year,” she says. “Especially after Charley Pride got in and said how DeFord was a forerunner to him. Hopefully enough people will get to know my father so he will be inducted someday.”
Pride, who was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, isn’t the first country music legend to acknowledge Bailey as a prime mover in the music’s history. Bluegrass giant Bill Monroe, who toured with Bailey in the 30s, spoke out on Bailey’s behalf. And when Roy Acuff joined the Opry in 1938, he made it a point to tour on the same bills as Bailey until he had established a name for himself. “I have tapes of Roy Acuff saying that no one would have known of him if it wasn’t for DeFord Bailey,” says Craig.
The youngest of Bailey’s three children, Craig was born and raised in Nashville but came to Chicago in 1960 to attend college. In the corner of her Lake Meadows apartment sits a banjo she bought for her father at a wholesale store around 1974. (Although Bailey was right-handed, he played the banjo and the guitar left-handed. Unlike most southpaw pickers, he didn’t restring the instruments, he just flipped them over and played them upside down.)
Bailey was a frequent guest in his daughter’s home. “My best memories are his visits here,” Craig says. “He’d stay week after week in the summertime. I’d stay down the hall and he’d move in the bedroom. We went to church at Man-dell United Methodist on the west side. He’d find a bench and play harmonica in the park we used to have here.” Often, she
says, friends would drop by with a fresh-baked sweet potato pie for the visiting dignitary, who was admired around the neighborhood for his natty appearance. “My father never left the house with-out a suit, a tie, a hat, and his shoes shining like new money,” Craig says.
The grandson of emancipated slaves, Bailey was born in Bellwood, Tennessee, in 1899. At the age of three he was stricken with polio; as a consequence he never grew taller than four-foot-eleven. It was while bedridden with the crippling disease that Bailey began to acquire his mastery of the blues harp. He demonstrated a particular talent for mimicking the sounds of rural life–the cackle of hens, the whirring of cicadas, the howl of a hunted fox, the rhythmic clatter of a freight train–on the instrument. His signature tune, “Pan American Blues,” would include a remarkable evocation of a train speeding round a corner, complete with Doppler effect.
In 1918 Bailey struck out for Nashville, 40 miles west of Bellwood. He was supporting himself as a menial laborer–running errands, doing yard work, shining shoes, and washing cars–when radio came to Tennessee in 1925. Bailey began his broadcasting career that year at Nashville’s pioneer station, WDAD, where he was the sole black entrant in a competition for the title of Tennessee’s best harmonica player. “No black folks entered because they all knowed I could beat ’em,” Bailey later told his friend and biographer David C. Morton. When Bailey’s clear supremacy over his white competitors triggered a backlash, Morton says, the organizers of the contest took refuge in a separate-but-equal fix, awarding first prize to the white player and creating a runner-up prize for Bailey, declaring the two winners to be the “best of both races.” Bailey accepted his trophy without complaint, but he never entered another contest.
In October 1925, Nashville’s second radio station, WSM, took to the air. WSM’s chief announcer and programmer, George D. Hay, had been hired away from WLS in Chicago, where he had created the National Barn Dance program, a hillbilly revue phenomenally popular with rural listeners throughout the midwest. Hay hoped to replicate this success in Nashville, and set about recruiting the best local talent he could find. One of Hay’s first hires, a white harpist called Dr. Humphrey Bate, persuaded him to let Bailey play on the program. Bailey, who had to stand on a Coca-Cola crate to reach the microphone, was an immediate hit; by mid-1926 his 15-minute harmonica solos had become a weekly staple of the show.
It was in the course of introducing one of Bailey’s sets that George Hay renamed WSM’s Barn Dance program the Grand Ole Opry. It was the fall of 1927, and WSM had recently become an affiliate station of the newly formed NBC network, the bulk of whose musical programs then were distinctly highbrow in comparison. One evening Hay, who did his announcing duties under the pseudonym of the Solemn Old Judge, was moved to poke some fun at the NBC program preceding his broadcast. “For the past hour,” he said, “we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present the Grand Ole Opry.” Hay then turned the show over to Bailey, who launched into “Pan American Blues.”
For 15 years, Bailey remained a star of the Opry, and when Opry acts went on tour together, Bailey–billed as “the harmonica wizard”–was a headliner. Success, however, couldn’t buy Bailey an exemption from the racial restrictions of the time. In later years, Bailey told his daughter of the hardships he experienced as a touring black performer in the days of jim crow. “When they had a break like two or three hours, he had to stay behind the stage and wait,” she says. “They’d bring sandwiches back to him. His favorite sandwich was ham. In the 20s and 30s he had to walk the street at night until he found a nice [black] home to stay in. If it didn’t look right, he kept on walking.” On rare occasions, Bailey could get into a whites-only hotel with the connivance of a white costar. “Uncle Dave Macon used to go in a hotel and tell people daddy was his valet,” says Craig.
The only place Bailey’s celebrity trumped the rule of segregation was within the confines of the Nashville shoe-shine shop that he ran in his spare time. Although the store did not provide separate seating for whites and blacks, a substantial portion of its clientele was white. “A white barber asked me one time how I could mix them up in my shoe-shine shop and using the same seat,” Bailey told David Morton. “He said they’d run him out of town if he did that. Well, I said, they all know me and all want to hear the same tune.”
Bailey was still a popular performer in May 1941, when the Opry management abruptly fired him. For decades, his dismissal remained a subject of conjecture and controversy among Opry devotees and country music scholars. Some have attributed the incident to racism on the part of the Opry management; others have credited George Hay’s explanation that Bailey was let go for refusing to learn new tunes. In their book DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music, Morton and Charles K. Wolfe say the harmonica wizard was a casualty of the war between the broadcasters and the music licensing body ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Performers).
In 1941, ASCAP doubled the fees it charged radio stations to use its copyrighted music. Many radio stations, including WSM, met the price hike by declaring a collective moratorium on all ASCAP-controlled music. The ban had negative implications for Bailey, whose repertoire comprised many tunes owned by ASCAP. Many of the songs in question–“Ain’t Gonna Rain No More,” “Lost John,” “John Henry,” “Casey Jones”–were folk tunes that had been copyrighted in the 1930s by opportunistic “song hunters.” Cut off from playing much of his best-loved material, Bailey was simultaneously under pressure to perform new songs from the catalog of BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated), the upstart music licensing body created by the broadcasting interests to rival ASCAP. Another factor working against Bailey was his gift as an improviser: stations participating in the boycott had outlawed improvisation for fear that performers might unthinkingly “quote” an ASCAP-controlled tune.
Indignant that anyone should presume to tell him what or how to play, Bailey refused to toe the line, which is almost certainly what led to his dismissal. Just a few months later, the broadcasters and ASCAP negotiated a new contract, signaling a return to business as usual at the Opry. But no one, it seems, thought of bringing Bailey back from his premature retirement. Embittered, Bailey turned his back on the music business, henceforth supporting himself with his shoe-shine operation.
In 1973, Bailey was living alone in the I.W. Gernert Homes, a public housing project in south Nashville, where he came to the attention of his future biographer. The author of a newsletter for the Nashville Housing Authority, David Morton had heard talk about a forgotten Opry star in the Gernert complex and thought he would make a good interview subject. Initially Bailey was wary. “He was a hermit,” says Morton, who is now executive director of the Housing Authority in Reno. “He’d taken his name off the lobby board.” At least some of Bailey’s leeriness, it turned out, was due to an undiagnosed hearing problem. “I thought he needed a hearing aid,” says Morton. “I had one of our social workers take him to a speech and hearing clinic. Turns out the bulk of his problem was a wax buildup. We still got him a hearing aid, and I bought him a new guitar. I wasn’t asking for anything in return. I told him I wanted to help him get some attention. He’d say, ‘Mr. Morton, I know you’re all right, but you don’t know them like I do.'”
Although Morton encouraged Bailey to attempt a comeback, Bailey resisted. In 1973, Morton tried to arrange for Bailey to make a musical appearance in a Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings. The producers at MGM were initially interested in casting Bailey, but the deal was thwarted by his unrealistic salary demands. “He wanted to do the Burt Reynolds movie,” Morton says, “but he also wanted an ongoing percentage of the movie. Nobody was going to do that. I contacted MGM. We had worked out a deal for $2,500. And he didn’t do it.” “Daddy was reluctant to talk to white people,” Christine Craig says. “He figured they’d make a million dollars and he’d make $300.”
Morton had better luck encouraging Bailey to perform for posterity. In the course of interviewing Bailey for the biography, Morton brought a reel-to-reel tape recorder to Bailey’s apartment. Between 1974 and 1976, Morton captured several hours of Bailey playing harmonica, guitar, and banjo, as well as singing, reminiscing, and telling stories. With the cooperation of Bailey’s children, 26 of the best of these recordings were released by the Tennessee Folklore Society in 1998 on a CD titled The Legendary DeFord Bailey: Country Music’s First Black Star.
Like Christine Craig, Morton never passes up a chance to evangelize on Bailey’s behalf. In 2001 he assisted in the making of the documentary DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost, produced by Nashville Public Television. “I really thought that when the documentary aired it would create enough awareness of DeFord to clinch his admission to the hall of fame, but sadly that still hasn’t happened yet,” he says.
Morton keeps in touch with Craig, who fights her father’s battle in various ways. In addition to having donated a collection of Bailey memorabilia to the Country Music Association (including several of his hats and a megaphone he used to amplify his harmonica), she regularly goes to the hall of fame and speaks informally to other visitors about her father’s neglected legacy. And when the TV documentary on her father first aired in May 2001, Craig was down in Nashville doing unpaid publicity rounds of local radio and television studios.
DeFord Bailey died of heart failure in 1982. The following year, Opry veterans Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, and Herman Crook were among those gathered at Nashville’s Greenwood Cemetery to dedicate a monument over his grave. “If his name is ever on the ballot,” said Acuff, “he’ll have one vote from Roy Acuff.” Monroe then played “Evening Prayer Blues,” a favorite of Bailey’s.
Admissions to the Country Music Hall of Fame are determined by a two-stage election process administered by the Country Music Association. A 12-member nominating committee selects the nominees with a secret ballot, then the winners are selected by a board of about 300 electors. “The nominating committee periodically create a category of induction that addresses the older artist,” says Peggy Whitaker, the CMA’s director of board administration. “The best chance for DeFord Bailey is 2005, under ‘Career Achievement National Prominence, Prior to World War II.’ But we always have an open category. Any performer, dead or alive, can be nominated and elected to the open category, which is annual.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.