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DeFord Bailey
Born December 14, 1899(1899-12-14)
Origin Smith County, Tennessee, U.S.
Died July 2, 1982 (aged 82)
Genres Country
Occupations Musician
Instruments Harmonica
Years active 1920sā€“1941
Labels Victor Recording Company, Bluebird, RCA

DeFord Bailey (December 14, 1899 ā€“ July 2, 1982) was an early country music star and the first African American performer on the Grand Ole Opry. Bailey played several instruments but is best known for his harmonica tunes. He was one of the few notable African-American stars in country music.


A grandson of slaves, Bailey was born in Smith County, Tennessee and moved to Nashville in 1925. His first documented radio appearance was June 19, 1926 on WSM in Nashville.

Bailey also had several records issued in 1927-1928, all of them harmonica solos. In 1927 he recorded eight sides for Brunswick records in New York City, while in 1928 he recorded eight sides for Victor Recording Company in Nashville, of which three were issued on several labels, including Victor, Bluebird and RCA. Emblematic of the ambiguity of Bailey's position as a recording artist is the fact his arguably greatest recording, John Henry, was released separately in both RCA's 'race' and 'hillbilly' series.

Bailey was a pioneer member of the WSM Grand Ole Opry, and one of its most popular performers, appearing on the program from 1927 to 1941. During this period he toured with many major country stars, including Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff. Like other black stars of his day traveling in the South and West, he faced many difficulties in finding food and accommodation because of the discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Bailey was fired by WSM in 1941 because of a licensing conflict with BMI-ASCAP which prevented him from playing his best known tunes on the radio. This effectively ended his performance career, and he spent the rest of his life shining shoes, cutting hair, and renting out rooms in his home to make a living. Though he continued to play the harp, he almost never performed publicly. One of his rare appearances occurred in 1974, when he agreed to make one more appearance on the Opry. This became the occasion for the Opry's first annual Old Timers' Show.

In 2005, Nashville Public Television produced the documentary "DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost". The documentary was broadcast nationally through PBS. Later that year, thanks to his pioneering efforts, Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on November 15, 2005. Joining him in the 2005 class were country-pop superstar Glen Campbell and the band Alabama. On June 27, 2007, the DeFord Bailey Tribute Garden was dedicated at the George Washington Carver Food Park in Nashville.


  • Morton, David C. & Wolfe, Charles K. (1993). Deford Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music. University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 0-87049-792-8.
  • David C. Morton, "DeFord Bailey," in The Encyclopedia of Country Music, 1998
  • PBS DeFord Bailey Documentary

External links



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