“Pan American Blues” // DeFord Bailey // Grand Ole Opry, 1967
Stricken with infantile paralysis at the age of 3, DeFord Bailey was given a harmonica as a means of amusement. The illness wasn’t the first obstacle Bailey had to overcome as a child, but one that would lay the groundwork for becoming the first African-American star of the Grand Ole Opry.
Born Dec. 14, 1899 in Bellwood, Tenn., Bailey overcame polio early in life, though his back would remain deformed and he would never grow taller than 4-foot-10.
His mother died when he was a baby, leaving his father’s sister and her husband to care for the young Bailey.
He spent his young life in rural Tennessee communities near railroads where he composed many of his harmonica tunes. Bailey would become famous for recreating the sounds of rushing locomotives.
During his teenage years he joined his family in Nashville, Tenn., where he would win a French harp contest on WDAD in 1925. Shortly thereafter, Bailey made his first appearance on WSM Radio, despite racial opposition from the station’s director.
Following his WSM appearance, Bailey would become known as the “Harmonica Wizard.”
In 1926, the WSM Barn Dance followed an hour of symphonic music. One evening its programming concluded with a selection by a composer reproducing the sound of a train.
Bailey opened the Barn Dance with his rendition of “Pan American Blues,” which led director George D. Hay to observe, “For the past hour we have been listening to music taken largely from grand opera. From now on we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’”
Bailey toured with Opry stars like Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon and Bill Monroe, though racial segregation caused problems for the traveling musician.
On some occasions, Bailey would pose as a baggage boy for the white performers in order to get into hotels.
In 1928, he recorded “Ice Water Blues” for Victor Records, a session that would be re-released three times due to its popularity.
During his most popular time on the Opry, Bailey was allotted a 25-minute performance on the three hour Opry show, but by 1941 he was finished at the Opry and began a 30-year career shining shoes on Twelfth Avenue.
Bailey’s career was remembered during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and he made an appearance on a local syndicated blues show, “Night Train.” In 1965, he performed at the Vanderbilt University. He would celebrate his 75th birthday on the Grand Ole Opry, playing several of his old tunes.
Bailey passed away July 2, 1982, at the age of 82. On June 23, 1983, the country music industry celebrated Bailey as the first African-American star of the Grand Ole Opry.