The Unsung Black Musician Who Changed Country Music
From the moment DeFord Bailey stepped onto a stage in Nashville, country music would never be the same. It was decades after his death before he finally got his due.
Photos courtesy David Morton | Edited by Genelle Levy
DeFord Bailey walked onto the Grand Ole Opry stage with a slight limp. Decked out in a bow tie, pocket square and polished shoes, he stood on a Coca-Cola crate to offset his 4-foot-11-inch stature. It was 1936. Bailey looked out at the audience, sitting on wooden benches in the Opry’s Dixie Tabernacle, just east of Nashville’s downtown core. He carried a harmonica, or “a harp,” as it was often referred to at the time, in his left hand. When he brought the harmonica to his mouth, he played a tune that sounded like the bold whistle of a locomotive train. For 15 minutes, he played a unique blend of country music and blues, bringing smiles to the eyes of the people in the dusty old tabernacle. Aside from his obvious talent and innovative harmonica technique, Bailey broke cultural barriers by becoming the first black country music star, and he was one of the most beloved Opry musicians of his time. He played harmonica for the Grand Ole O…