One of the biggest stars of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville’s iconic showcase of country music, was a 4-foot-11 black harmonica player named DeFord Bailey.
Bailey grew up in a musical family in Smith County, Tenn., 40 miles east of Nashville. He picked up the harmonica as a child. “My folks didn’t give me no rattler,” Bailey said, “they gave me a harp.” Bedridden for a year with polio—a disease that stunted his growth— Bailey learned to mimic the sounds of trains, birds, fox hounds and even the wind with the instrument.
After a brief stint on Nashville’s WDAD radio station in 1925, Bailey was invited to appear on rival WSM’s Barn Dance, an old-time music show broadcast live on Saturday nights. The program was renamed Grand Ole Opry in 1927; by 1928 Bailey had appeared on the Opry more times than any other performer.
Most listeners, however, were unaware that the “Harmonica Wizard” who played what many considered to be the music of rural Southern whites was actually a black man. Fans who saw the show live in Nashville didn’t seem to mind. But when Bailey traveled with the Opry in the South, the rules of Jim Crow still applied. Opry favorite Uncle Dave Macon sometimes claimed Bailey was his valet so that the harp star could stay in a hotel instead of sleeping in the car.
Bailey was fired from the Opry in 1941 for allegedly refusing to learn new music. The real reasons are still unclear, but the departure effectively ended Bailey’s professional music career. After 15 seasons on one of the most successful radio shows in the country, Bailey opened a full-time shoeshine business a few blocks away from the Opry’s Ryman Auditorium.
Apart from two Opry appearances in 1974, Bailey rarely performed publicly after 1941. He was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.