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Bailey, DeFord 1899–1982

DeFord Bailey 18991982


Learned to Play the Harmonica

Began Radio Career

Fired from the Opry

Appeared on Television Shows


The son of a tenant farmer, DeFord Bailey was born on December 14, 1899, in Smith County, Tennessee. His mother, Mary Reedy Bailey chose the name DeFord in honor of two of her teachersMr. DeBerry and Mrs. Stella Ford. Bailey was not raised by his parents, since his father, John Henry Bailey, moved away and remarried, and his mother died within a year of his birth. His fathers younger sister, Barbara Lou Bailey, and the man she married, Chuck Odum, took charge of the child.

Musical talent existed within each branch of Baileys family, and, indeed, Bailey once claimed that, as a child, he was given a mouth harp instead of a rattle. His paternal grandfather, Lewis Bailey, was considered the best musician in Smith County. Baileys father and other family members sometimes performed in a popular string band. Yet, despite the prevalence of music in his life, Bailey was expected to become a farm worker like the other men in his family.

In 1904 Bailey was stricken by polio and he could not walk for a year. This disease also affected his physical development, and he remained small. At age 12, he was the size of a nine- year-old, and, as an adult, he stood four feet ten inches tall. He was also slightly crippled from the polio, and weighed less than 100 pounds.

Learned to Play the Harmonica

It was during his recovery from polio that Bailey began playing the harmonica and the guitar. His size, which made him ill-suited for heavy farm work, enabled him to continue on with his music. Bailey also learned to play the mandolin and, to a lesser extent, the fiddle. Many of his instruments were homemade, including banjos and wash tub bass fiddles. He also used beef ribs to make bones, a percussion instrument.

Baileys foster family moved to a farm near Newsoms Station in 1908. Now just ten miles from Nashville, where his father lived, Bailey rode the train for the first time to visit his father. The family moved to another farm around 1914, this time south of Nashville in Williamson County. It was in Williamson County that Bailey first came into contact with black musicians outside of his family. There, too, he received most of his schooling. He learned enough arithmetic to handle money and also learned how to sign his name. However, he refused to learn to read. Then in about 1916

At a Glance

Born born on December 14, 1899, in Smith County, TN; died on July 2, 1982; son of John Henry Bailey (a tenant farmer) and Mary Reedy Bailey; married ida Lee Jones, 1929 (divorced); children: DeFord Jr., Dezoral Lee, Christine Lamb.

Career: Musician. Worked at odd jobs, 1920-25; WSM, Nashville, TN, appeared on radio programs, 1925-41; recorded 11 singles, 1927-28; opened shoe shine shop, 1933; operated barbeque stand, 1933-41; performed in two segments of a syndicated film series entitled Grand Ole Opry, 1967; appeared on local television programs, 1950s; syndicated television appearances, 1960s.

Awards: June 23, 1983 proclaimed DeFord Bailey Day by mayor of Nashville.

the family moved to yet another farm seven miles south of Franklin, Tennessee. In about 1917 a white shopkeeper, Gus Watson, asked Bailey to live with him and his wife. Bailey helped out in Watsons general store and also played for the customers.

Baileys father died in July of 1918. That fall, Odum decided to move his family to Nashville, and Bailey decided follow. Odum had found a job as groundskeeper for Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Bradford, one of Nashvilles wealthiest families. The Bradfords also hired Bailey as a houseboy, but he later played the harmonica to entertain the Bradfords and their guests. After leaving the Bradford family, Bailey followed Odum to work for another family.

From 1920 to 1925 Bailey worked in a variety of odd jobs, including: a shoe shine person, a delivery person, a car washer, and an elevator operator. During breaks in work, he would play his harmonica. Baileys family began to drift apart after the death of Barbara Lou Odum in 1923. Clark Odum rented a house in Nashville for the children and traveled to Detroit where he found work and was able to send money back to the family.

Began Radio Career

Bailey was working as an elevator operator when radio came to Nashville in the spring of 1925. Bailey entered a contest sponsored by WDAD, the first station on the air in Nashville. Though Bailey was the superior musician, the contest promoter only awarded him second prize. WSM, Nashvilles second radio station, went on the air in the fall of 1925. That December WSM began a series of broadcasts featuring country musicthese programs were later named The Barn Dance. Bailey appeared on the program in early 1926, and his set was so successful that he was given two dollars and asked to perform again the following week.

In the fall of 1927, Bailey was the first country musician introduced on a program following a network classical music presentation from Chicago. After Bailey played one of his famous train songs, The Pan American Blues, according to David C. Morton and Charles K. Wolf, authors of DeFord Bailey, the program host, Judge Hay, asserted, For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present The Grand Ole Opry. By December the programs official name became The Grand Ole Opry.

Bailey became a program favorite, and, between mid-1926 and April of 1927, he appeared on The Grand Ole Opry more than any other performer. In 1928 he appeared on 49 of the programs 52 shows. Bailey continued to appear on the program throughout the 1930s, often performing two sets in one night.

Bailey spent 18 weeks in 1927-1928 recording some 11 singles. Although some of the recordings had modest success, Bailey received very little money for them. He made no further attempts to record, but remained a popular radio performer. Three of his songs were especially popular with audiences: The Fox Chase, The Pan American Blues, and Dixie Flyer.

Dissatisfied with the fact that white performers made more money, Bailey tried to break away from Nashville in 1928. He worked briefly in Knoxville and considered moving to California. However, a pay raisefrom $7 a show to $20 per showpersuaded him to return to WSM.

Bailey married Ida Lee Jones in 1929. The marriage ended in divorce, but not before the couple had three children: DeFord, Jr., Dezoral Lee, and Christine Lamb. In about 1930, Bailey attempted to earn more money to support his growing family by opening a barbecue stand, which remained in operation for eight years. In 1933 he, along with his uncle, opened a shoe shine shop. To cash in on his fame as a radio performer and to earn more money, Bailey also went on tour.

WSM organized the Artists Service Bureau in 1933, and many aspiring country music singers used Baileys popularity in audiences for their own music. On this tour, Bailey often had difficulty getting the promoters to pay him, so WSM demanded that Bailey be paid a fee of $5 a performance. However, this arrangement did not always work to Baileys advantage, since Bailey could often have earned more if he had shared the standard percentage of the gate.

Fired from the Opry

Around 1940 contract negotiations between the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and the radio networks broke down. ASCAP had set a deadline of January 1, 1941, for a new contract with the radio networks, but the networks resisted and boycotted ASCAP-copyrighted music. This meant radio performers had to write new material, rather than perform ASCAP-copyrighted songs. Many of the songs that Bailey performed were traditional, but they nonetheless had ASCAP copyrights. Bailey did not like the idea of composing music for his program, and his refusal to write new material may have led to his release from the Opry in late May of 1941. Since Bailey remained extremely popular with audiences, WSM continued to pay him three dollars a week just to be present and visible at shows for several weeks.

After his dismissal from WSM, Bailey decided never to work for anyone else again. He expanded his shoe shine business to include several more shops in the black Edgehill section of Nashville. The majority of his clientele was black, but he also attracted business from large numbers of whites, some of whom even mailed their footwear to him from out of town. Bailey became a father figure to many of the neighborhoods young blacks, and he bought every gun that was offered to him, just to get them out of circulation.

Bailey still performed occasionally during these years, but his relationship with the Opry worsened after he found out that, while he had received only $50 for appearing in a wartime propaganda film featuring Opry performers, other performers earned $1000. In 1967 Bailey performed in two segments of a syndicated film series entitled Grand Ole Opry, and these segments were later included on the 1988 videotape, Legends of the Grand Ole Opry. In the 1950s he became a regular guest on a local television program, and occasionally sang gospel music with his children in local churches.

Appeared on Television Shows

In the 1960s Bailey appeared several times on the syndicated television show Night Train. These appearances allowed a new generation of folk music fans to discovered him. Bailey appeared for the first time in ten years when he played on the last show in the Ryman Auditorium in 1974. Although he could have performed more often during the time, Bailey turned down many offers because he suspected that he would still be exploited. Bailey once asserted, according to Morton and Wolfe, They say I dont like white people. They got me wrong. Im just like white people. I just want my money. I dont want more than anyone else, but I want the same as they get.

Baileys health was generally good until shortly before his death. He died on July 2, 1982. Nashvilles mayor declared June 23, 1983, DeFord Bailey Day, and the mayor, along with Baileys family and friends, gathered at his grave for a ceremony marking the unveiling of a monument. The monuments inscription read: Harmonica Wizard, Musician, Composer, Entertainer, Early Star of Grand Ole Opry.



The Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia. Times Books/Random House, 1994.

Guralnick, Peter. Lost Highway: Journeys &Arrivals of American Musicians. Boston: Godine, 1979.

Notable Black American Men, Gale Research, 1998.

Morton, David C., with Charles K. Wolfe. DeFord Bailey. University of Tennessee Press, 1991.


Nashville Tennessean, Weekend, February 10, 1991.


Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2001,

Robert L. Johns and Jennifer M. York

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