DeFord Bailey’s grandson says seeing street named after the music legend is a ‘feeling like no other’ | CBC Radio

As It Happens6:00A “feeling like no other” to see street renamed after Grand Ole Opry legend DeFord Bailey, says grandson

Herchel Bailey says his grandfather DeFord Bailey is dancing around and laughing in heaven right now. 

As part of the Grand Ole Opry, a country music show based out of Nashville, DeFord was known as the “Harmonica Wizard.” On Saturday, Nashville renamed Horton Avenue — in the Tennessee city’s Edgehill neighborhood — to DeFord Bailey Avenue.

It follows a campaign by his family to garner long-overdue recognition for the music legend.

“It’s like a dream come true,” his grandson Herchel, a musician himself, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

“Turning down that street and seeing DeFord Bailey Avenue, oh wow man, it does something to you, you know? I mean, it’s a feeling like no other. I was so excited. I was overwhelmed,” he said. 

Herchel said it was important that they renamed a street in the Edgehill neighborhood, as that’s where DeFord Bailey lived much of his life and owned a shoe-shine business, before his death in 1982. 

Two smiling men next to bright green street sign that reads "DEFORD BAILEY AVE"
Herchel and Carlos Bailey pay tribute to their grandfather DeFord Bailey, as a Nashville street is renamed in his honour. (Herchel Bailey/Facebook)

DeFord picked up the harmonica after contracting polio as a child. His grandson says he would lay in bed and listen to the sounds coming from the nearby train — then, he would imitate what he heard. 

In 1927, DeFord’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, DeFord faced racism during the Jim Crow Era of segregation in the South, especially while touring with other white Opry members.

“He couldn’t go to the hotels that everybody went to…. He wasn’t welcome into the restaurants that everybody was welcomed into,” said his grandson. “He opened a lot of doors because of his, I want to say, his bravery.… It was very hard for him, but he stuck it out.”

DeFord performed on the Opry stage for about 16 years until 1941, thanks in part to a rift between the Opry and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) — a performing rights organization. The Opry management forbade DeFord from performing his songs that were licensed through ASCAP, including listener favourites like Fox Chase. When he refused to agree to their terms, he was fired.

Black and white image of a smiling older gentlemen in a suit and hat sitting on a chair on a concrete balcony and holding a guitar.
DeFord Bailey playing guitar on the balcony of his Nashville apartment in the late 1970s. (David C. Morton/Country Music Hall of Fame)

DeFord retired from performing professionally and channelled his attention into a second career as the owner of a shoe-shine parlor in Nashville. 

“A lot of people would come by just because of who he [was] to get their shoes shined. He would sit and tell the Grand Ole Opry stories and play a little bit of his harmonica and his banjo,” said Herchel. 

A big turnout 

Politicians, family, and community members gathered for this weekend’s sign unveiling ceremony in Nashville. 

Nashville Council Member At Large Sharon Hurt, who co-sponsored the street renaming bill and spoke at the event, said in an email that it was “an incredible day to lift up such Black excellence in South Nashville, as it is long overdue.” 

David Morton was there, too. He’s a historian and author of DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music — which is considered the definitive biography on the musician’s life. 

Morton first met the musician when he took a job with the local housing authority and was tasked with writing up a newsletter for community members. He recalls a woman coming up to him and urging him to write a story about DeFord. At the time, Morton had no idea who that was. 

When he went to DeFord’s apartment, Morton remembers DeFord coming to the door “dressed like he was ready to perform.” 

“When I heard him play, god, it was like I was in the presence of a master. And I was. You know, I got chills,” said Morton.

The pair developed a mutual trust and deep friendship, and Morton says he’s spent the decades since then working to get his friend the recognition he deserves.

A scratched up black and while photo of an older Black man playing the banjo while a young white man records.
DeFord Bailey, left, plays a tune for biographer David Morton. (Rayburn Ray/Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency/Country Music Hall of Fame)

In 2005, DeFord was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And last year, the Opry issued a statement and apology for its role in perpetuating racism within country music, including performers who used blackface during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s and its firing of DeFord.

Herchel Bailey says his family will continue its work to tell his grandfather’s story more widely. Their next goal: a statue in the Edgehill neighborhood of DeFord with his harmonica — wearing his dapper suit and a hat.

With files from Sheena Goodyear and The Associated Press. Interview with Herchel Bailey produced by Morgan Passi. 

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