By Sasha Kay Dunavant

From the big cities to the small communities, Tennessee Music Pathways program identifies, explains and preserves the legacy of music in Tennessee. Be it a story of the past, a star of the present or the promise of the future, Tennessee Music Pathways helps music lovers follow the music throughout a state rich in musical history.

In September the first African American Country music star, DeFord Bailey, was honored with a marker on the public square in Carthage, Tennessee.

Born in 1899, Bailey was the grandson of slaves. Bailey lost his mother soon thereafter, and his aunt Barbara and her husband, Clark Odum, became his foster parents. Learning to play the harmonica after contracting polio at age three gave Bailey an edge while playing what he called “Black hillbilly music” with his family in Smith County, Tennessee. While polio stunted his growth and left his back somewhat bent, what he lacked in physical stature he made up for in talent and determination.

“My folks didn’t give me no rattler, they gave me a harp,” Bailey later explained to researcher David Morton.

Bailey was getting bicycle parts at “Dad’s Parts” when he met owner Fred “Pop” Exum, who also owned a local radio station, WDAD, where Bailey soon began performing.

Bailey was invited to perform on WSM’s Barn Dance, later renamed “The Grand Ole Opry,” where on Dec. 10, 1927, he premiered his trademark number, “Pan American Blues.” Billed as The Harmonica Wizard, Bailey began making regular radio appearances. An expansion of station wattage gave Bailey an advantage because more people were able to hear him play. In 1928 he recorded eight tracks in Nashville, which were released by RCA, Bluebird, Victor, RCA other record companies. His greatest recording is considered to be “John Henry, released separately in both RCA’s “race” and “hillbilly” series.

Bailey became one of the greatest performers on the Grand Ole Opry to which he was an inducted member, playing there from 1927-1941. He toured with many famous country artists during his time on the Opry, often encountering problems caused by Jim Crowe laws that prevented Blacks from eating in restaurants and sleeping in motels frequented by whites. Bailey was fired by WSM in 1941 because of a licensing conflict with BMIASCAP, which prevented him from playing his best-known tunes on radio, ending his performance career. He spent the rest of his life shining shoes and renting out rooms in his home to make a living. He died in 1982 and was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

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