“My grandfather was a championship fiddler for all of Tennessee. All of my uncles and aunts played fiddle or banjo or guitar, and every year the Bailey Family Band would go to the fair over at Lebanon and play. There wasn’t no blues back in those days. It was all hillbilly music—black hillbilly music. That’s all I knew out there in the country. I didn’t hear the blues until I came to Nashville.”
The speaker was a small, seventy-five-year-old black man named DeFord Bailey. It was the spring of 1974, and he was holding forth on the porch of his apartment in a high-rise housing unit near the Vanderbilt area in Nashville. His guests are a couple of music historians and a large football player from Vanderbilt who found himself assigned the interview as part of a summer class he had to take to bring his grades up. DeFord was dressed in a dapper blue suit (in spite of the heat) and wanted to talk about his early days out in Smith County, not far from the home of Albert Gore Jr., and about sixty miles east of Nashville. As a boy, while recovering from polio, he lay in bed listening to the sounds around him and learning how to imitate them on his little harmonica. Soon he could do “The Fox Chase” and “Hen Cackle” and various imitations of the trains he heard in the distance. By 1926 he had become one of the charter members of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, and for fifteen years reigned as country music’s first African-American star.
On this day, though, and on most other days for that matter, DeFord didn’t want to talk much about the Opry or the controversy over how he left it in 1941. He didn’t make a big deal out of the fact that in 1928 he had appeared on the show more than any other performer, and that he drew stacks of letters—some of them with dollar bills enclosed. He didn’t make a big deal over the fact that it was his performance of “Pan American Blues” one evening in 1927 that inspired WSM manager Judge Hay to rename the WSM Barn Dance the Grand