Pioneer gets his due in Country Hall of Fame
November 6, 2005
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
These are grand old times for Christine Lamb Craig. She lives in a
high-rise apartment near U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the World
Champion White Sox. The retired Chicago public schoolteacher is a
White Sox fan who wears commemorative White Sox gear around the house.
Her father is DeFord Bailey, the first black star of the Nashville
institution known as the Grand Ole Opry. During the late 1920s, his
spiraling 15-minute harmonica solos anchored the Opry. He was the
Hendrix of hillbillies.
A master harmonica player, Bailey's signature tune was "Pan American
Blues," where he evoked a train chugging around a corner. During the
late 1920s, Bailey also recorded for the Brunswick, Columbia and
Victor labels. His fans included bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and Roy
Acuff, who toured with Bailey in 1938 to jump-start his own career.
When Charley Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in
2000, he name-checked Bailey.
On July 3, 1982, Bailey died at the age of 82.
Craig has spent more than a decade campaigning for her father's
inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Her work has paid off. On
Nov. 15, Bailey will be inducted into the hall along with
vocalist-guitarist Glen Campbell and the country-pop group Alabama
during the Country Music Association Awards at Madison Square Garden
in New York City.
Bailey was a small man who walked among giants.
He was the grandson of an emancipated slave. At age 3, he contracted
polio, which stunted his growth. He never grew taller than 4-foot-11,
and he weighed around 100 pounds. "He was so short when he'd come to
Chicago, we'd be riding in the car, and he'd tease me how he couldn't
see over the buildings," Craig said in her apartment, which is
accented by dancing James Brown and Louis Armstrong figurines.
Although Bailey was right-handed, he played the banjo and guitar
left-handed. Unlike most southpaws, he didn't restring the instruments
-- he flipped them over and played them upside down.
Bailey was an Opry star from its 1927 origins until he left in 1941.
He performed on 49 of the 52 programs during its first year as the
Grand Ole Opry, more than any other artist. (Before 1927, the Opry was
the WSM Barn Dance.)
Bailey never talked on the Opry, so radio listeners could not pick up
on his African-American dialect. There was no effort to promote the
fact that one of the show's most popular performers was black.
In the summer of 1983, Acuff, Bill Monroe, Herman Crook and others
gathered at Nashville's Greenwood Cemetery to unveil a monument at
Bailey's grave. Monroe played "Evening Prayer Blues," and
singer-songwriter James Talley performed "John Henry," one of Bailey's
better-known numbers. At the time, Acuff said, "If his name is ever on
the [Hall of Fame] ballot, he'll have one vote from Roy Acuff." But
Acuff died in 1992.
Until now, Bailey has been a footnote in country music history. Craig
donated one of her father's harmonicas and a green megaphone (that he
attached to his harmonica), which appear near the bottom of a showcase
in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Bailey is being inducted under a category called "Career Achievement
National Prominence, Prior to World War II." "DeFord has been among
the nominees for several years," CMA Executive Director Ed Benson said
last week. "The Country Music Hall of Fame is a small hall in terms of
the number of people who have been inducted [95, including 2005
inductees]. It's a question of time. There's other significant people
in the formative history of country music who have still to make it."
Such artists include the late Lowell Blanchard, a native of Palmer,
Ill., who hosted the WNOX (Knoxville) "Mid-Day Merry Go-Round" (and
sang the hit "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb"), and National Barn Dance
stars Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman.
"There is no doubt that the persistence of DeFord's family believing
that he deserved to be part of the Hall of Fame is one of the reasons
he's being inducted this year," Benson said.
Bailey had strong ties to Chicago. In 1965, Craig took her father to
Don McNeil's "Breakfast Club" at the Allerton Hotel. She escorted him
to the 23rd-floor Tip Top Tap, where Bailey cut loose with "Pan
American Blues" (which would become the lead track on the Country
Music Foundation's 1998 box set "From Where I Stand: The Black
Experience in Country Music). "I told them who he was, and they let
him play," Craig said. "A couple years later, 'The Breakfast Club'
sent for him. They had a 'Concert of Harps,' a string harp, a
chromatic harp, his harmonica. They paid him $100 and paid his way to
come by train to Chicago."
Another time, Craig took her father to the Merchandise Mart, where the
"Tilmon Tempo" television show was taped between 1972-74 on WMAQ-TV.
Craig got Bailey a guest spot on the show. "My producer suggested
booking someone from the Grand Ole Opry," remembered host Jim Tilmon,
now at WBBM-TV. "At first blush, I didn't think it was my audience.
But after I gave it more thought, I realized we were trying to reach a
multicultural audience. I was surprised he was black. I was surprised
at the music he played. It was not what I think of when I think of the
Grand Ole Opry."
Bailey grew up near the L & N train tracks in rural Smith County,
Tenn., where he learned to replicate the sound of fast moving trains
on harmonica. The Pan American was a deluxe liner that rolled through
Nashville from Cincinnati. On his song "The Fox Chase," Bailey
imitated the fox howls and barking dogs of his backwoods youth.
His legion of fans include Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who in 2003
reminisced to the New York Times about courting his future wife while
listening to the Opry radio show as a high school senior in West
Virgina. "I remember DeFord Bailey," Byrd said. "He could make the
harmonica scream when he played 'Freight Train Blues.' "
While appearing on the Barn Dance and the Opry, Bailey had to stand on
a Coca-Cola crate to reach the microphone.
During the late 1920s and '30s, Opry artists periodically hit the road
in package tours. Bailey had to walk the streets alone to find a black
home that would take him in. Once in a while, he could get in a
whites-only hotel with the help of a white co-star. "Uncle Dave Macon
used to go in a hotel and tell people Daddy was his valet," Craig
In May 1941, Bailey was suddenly fired from the Opry. No one knows for
sure what happened. Most witnesses from that time are dead.
After leaving the Opry, Bailey was reluctant to perform in Nashville.
He was bitter. He divorced in 1951 and never remarried. From 1968
until his death, Bailey lived alone in the I.W. Gernert Homes in south
He operated a shoeshine shop across the street from the public housing
project in which he lived. Once in a while, he played harmonica at the
shop. He lived a clean life. He did not drink alcohol and he
hand-scrawled signs for his shop that read: "Please, No Profane
He carefully handcrafted the three stands in his shop. "He shined
shoes in a white shirt," Craig recalled. "I bought him a color shirt
one time. He said, 'Have you ever seen me in a color shirt?' I
The youngest of Bailey's three children, Craig, 68, was born and
reared in Nashville and came to Chicago in 1960 to attend college. In
1975, she obtained a master's degree in American history from
Northeastern University. She wrote a biography of her father.
Around the same time, David Morton was writing a newsletter for his
job at the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency in Nashville. A
friend told Morton about a forgotten Opry star who was living in
Apartment 307. Morton learned that Bailey gave no interviews and did
no public performing. But he pursued and encouraged Bailey.
Armed with a reel-to-reel recorder, between 1974 and 1976 Morton
captured 26 performances of Bailey singing, telling stories and
playing harmonica and banjo. Those sessions were released in 1998 by
Tennessee Folklore Society Records as "The Legendary DeFord Bailey."
Morton and Charles Wolfe also co-wrote the biography DeFord Bailey (A
Black Star in Early Country Music) (University of Tenn. Press, 1991).
Morton also was an adviser on the documentary "DeFord Bailey: A Legend
Lost," which aired in 2003 on Nashville's PBS affiliate.
Morton, 59, maintains Craig played a central role in Bailey's life.
"Christine would always try to get him to come to Chicago, and he
encouraged her to get her teaching degree. He had a special feeling
towards Chicago, and he loved going to the Don McNeil show. One time
he told me, 'Chicago ain't nothing but a big old raggedy town. It's a
good place to come away from.' And he liked seeing the 'one-way
Later this month, Craig, who has never been to Manhattan, will travel
to New York for the CMA ceremonies. She will be accompanied by her
brother DeFord Bailey Jr. and her sister Dezoral Bailey Thomas, both
of whom live in Nashville.
"What would he say if he was there?" Craig asked. "'It took a long
time, but I finally made it.'"