On Saturday, DeFord Bailey Avenue will be officially dedicated in the Edgehill neighborhood of Nashville where Bailey lived most of his life until his death in 1982. Two of Bailey’s grandsons, Carlos DeFord Bailey and Herchel Bailey will perform at a concert after the dedication.
Bailey overcame huge obstacles on his way to stardom. He contracted polio as a child, which led him to learn the harmonica while he was bedridden. He came from a family of Black musicians and his music created a link between the rural “Black hillbilly music” he learned living in Smith County, Tennessee, and the contemporary country music that was being formed on the Opry stage.
“He traveled throughout the South with Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe and Minnie Pearl and that gang there, and he was the star of the show,” said his grandson Carlos DeFord Bailey.
In 1927, Bailey’s performance of “Pan American Blues,” in which his harmonica imitated the sound of a rolling locomotive, helped inspire the name “Grand Ole Opry,” and he was the first musician to hold a major recording session in Nashville in 1928. Despite his success and popularity, Bailey faced racism during the Jim Crow Era of segregation in the South, especially while touring with other white Opry members.
“He wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things that the other artists were able to do, like going to restaurants, going into the hotels, using the bathrooms,” said his grandson. “He had to sleep in the car from time to time.”
Bailey performed on the Opry for about 16 years until 1941 when a dispute between the Opry and the performing rights organization ASCAP created a rift. The Opry management forbade Bailey from performing his songs that were licensed through ASCAP, including listener favorites like “Fox Chase.” When he refused, the Opry fired him.
Bailey retired from playing professionally and channeled his attention to a second career as the owner of a shoe-shine parlor in Nashville. His grandson remembers spending Saturdays at the parlor and recalls that his grandfather often dressed very dapper — wearing suits underneath his overalls to protect them from stains.
Bailey’s impact on country music was overlooked or whitewashed from the history books for decades. Acuff, for example, argued publicly shortly after Bailey’s death that Bailey’s music didn’t rise to the level of other Country Music Hall of Fame members like himself.
An author named David Morton wrote the definitive biography on Bailey in 1991 that finally led to recognition for the musical pioneer and acknowledgement of the racism he endured.
In 2005, Bailey was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And last year, the Opry issued a statement and apology for its role in racism within country music, including using blackface performers during the early decades and its firing of Bailey.
Carlos DeFord Bailey, who followed in his grandfather’s footsteps as musician and as a shoe-shiner, said he appreciates the steps taken by the Opry to recognize its mistakes.
“The Grand Ole Opry has gotten younger and they believe in doing the right thing,” said Bailey. “And it’s opened the doors for a lot of people of color.”
In addition to the street renaming, a new edition of Morton’s biography is currently on sale through the CMHOF’s website and museum — complete with a new forward, more illustrations and a complete recording session discography. It will be rolled out to more bookstores in June. Carlos DeFord Bailey believes the moves will help keep Bailey’s legacy alive for a new generation.
“I think a lot more people will hear about him and and will learn about him,” he said.