Blues researcher Paul Oliver, talks about hearing Sonny Terry play a tune called “The Alcoholic Blues.” Sonny told him that he learned it from a little feller, Defoe Bailey, back home in Rockingham, North Carolina. Brownie McGhee, Sonny’s long time partner, confirmed that Bailey was black and that he used to play on the Grand Ole Opry. Black! And playing on the Opry? Oliver felt they must be mistaken but, of course, they where not. It took quite a while for this early artist to take his appropriate place in musical history.
Deford Bailey was born in 1899, or thereabouts, in the town of Carthage, Smith County, Tennessee. His parents were but the family had originally moved to Tennessee from New York. Even so, Deford remembered that his granddaddy was the best fiddler in Smith County. “He played “Old Joe Clark,” “Lost John,” “Cluck Old Hen,” and all them way back pieces–reels, hornpipes, breakdowns.”
Deford’s Mother played the guitar, his brother played the banjo, and, at the age of three, he started to play both harmonica and mandolin. A Hohner Marine Band harp (harmonica) was his favorite instrument. “Oh, I wore it out trying to imitate everything I hear! Hens, foxes, hounds, turkeys, and all those trains and things on the road. Everything around me.
Going to school, he’d pass under the trestle between Newsom’s Station and the Thompson’s Station and imitate trains as they passed over him. A victim of polio when he was a small child, Deford’s growth was stunted, so he was unable to obtain normal farm work. Deford made use of his musical talents by joining up with another small and crippled harp player named Bob “Tip” Lee.
They performed on a wagon in the streets of Nashville and Deford was able to make enough money from his playing and from working as a cook in Nashville. He got yet another job as an elevator operator and played harmonica to the people who rode his elevator. Some of these passengers urged him to play in a harmonica contest on a radio station. He came in second but the contest seems to have led him indirectly to Judge George Hay, who had a barn dance show on a radio station. When the barn dance became the “Grand Ole Opry,” it was a black man playing “Pan American Blues.” He opened the show with this tune.
For over 15 years, Bailey was a regular and immensely popular artist on the Opry. It went out to a large audience. He also toured with the Opry stage show and was favored as a mascot for the company, a role that had its less pleasant overtones. In fact, he was the victim of a lot of racial prejudice in those days, unable to eat at segregated lunch counters or to have a room in the same hotel unless Uncle Dave Macon, the veteran banjo player, claimed that Bailey was his personal valet and insisted on accommodations for him.
In 1941 came the parting of the ways. According to Judge Hay, “Deford was lazy. He knew about a dozen numbers, which he put on the air and recorded for a major company (Victor) but he refused to learn more, although the reward was great.” According to Bailey, he quit because he was tired of being pushed around and treated like, as Hayes called him, “a mascot.”
Deford recorded 11 sides of records at sessions for Victor Records during 1927 and 1928. Even though he was a popular artist throughout the 1930s, he never recorded after those early days of his career. Though they are few in number, his recordings do present his abilities and his breadth. From train imitations: “Pan American Blues” and “Dixie Flyer,” which mimic the sounds he heard as a child to sophisticated tunes like “Up the Country” and “Muscle Shoals Blues.” Both songs were composed by Texas writer George W. Thomas and were also recorded by city blues singers Sippie Wallace and Edith Wilson. He also recorded the classic “Cow-Cow Blues,” which had been written by Cow-Cow Davenport and which Bailey called “Davidson County Blues”.
In February of 1974, over 30 years after the split, Deford Bailey was asked to play the closing show in the Grand Ole Opry building. After that he occasionally made appearances and cut a CD (where he played several instruments), but during appearances he only played the harmonica.
Deford Bailey died on July 2, 1982. He was 83 years old. His original 11 Victor 78s are available on Document as well as other labels.
Recordially, Lou Curtiss