DeFord Bailey, The First African-American Star Of The Grand Ole Opry

DeFord Bailey


If I don’t blow my harp, I hurt. God put that on me to make me play. He wanted me to use my talent.

DeFord Bailey, a musician, was dubbed “the most significant black country star before World War II.” Bailey was born in Smith County, Tennessee on December 14, 1899. Mary Reedy, his mother, named him after two of her former teachers, Mr. Deberry and Mrs. DeFord. Bailey’s mother died of an unknown illness when he was just over a year old. His father, John Henry, had a younger sister who assisted in his upbringing. His foster mother was his aunt, who also gave him his first harmonica.

My folks didn’t give me no rattler, they gave me a harp, and I ain’t been without one since.


Bailey was three years old when she was diagnosed with infantile paralysis, also known as polio. For a year, he was confined to his bed and could only move his head and arms. Apart from making sure the patient was comfortable, medical professionals couldn’t do much during this time. Bailey truly discovered the sweet sounds of music during this time. He’d lie in bed and listen to everything around him. He recovered from the disease, but he still had physical complications; his growth was stunted, and he walked with a hunchback.

Bailey moved to Nashville to live with his aunt and foster father after his biological father died. His foster parents were working for one of Nashville’s most prominent families at the time, and they arranged for Bailey to become a houseboy. Bailey began by running errands, setting the table, and cleaning and polishing silver. When the family discovered Bailey’s musical talent, his role in the family changed.

I’d wear a white coat, black leather tie, and white hat. I’d have a good shoeshine. That all suits me. That’s my make-up. I never did no more good work. My work was playing the harp.

Bailey’s foster mother died in 1923, which devastated the entire family, especially Bailey. Following her death, the family gradually drifted apart. Bailey’s foster father relocated to Detroit to work for Henry Ford, but Bailey remained in Nashville and worked odd jobs. Bailey later began his radio career with Nashville’s WSM in 1926.

In addition, he released several records in 1927 and 1928, all of which featured harmonica solos. In New York City in 1927, he recorded for Brunswick records. Bailey was a founding member and one of the WSM Grand Ole Opry’s most popular performers, appearing on the show from 1927 to 1941.

He toured with many major country stars during this time, including Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff. Bailey was fired from WSM in 1941 due to a licensing dispute that prevented him from playing his most famous songs on the radio. After the incident, his performance career ended, and he returned to shining shoes and renting out rooms in his home to make ends meet. He kept playing the harmonica for fun, but not for the public. He died in Nashville on July 2, 1982.


Written by How Africa News

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