By Clare Bratten
NASHVILLE, TN — DeFord Bailey, the exemplary harmonica and blues man who helped break the color barrier in country music with his pyrotechnic ability on the mouth harp just had a star dedicated to him on the Music City Walk of Fame Park last week. Known as “The Harmonica Wizard” Bailey appeared regularly on the Grand Ole Opry – in fact, his train inspired tune “Pan American” often opened the broadcast. His daughter Dezoral Bailey Thomas and extended family members joined in the celebration. Bailey first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in 1926 and was a regular on the show until 1941 and archival footage of his performance has been a part of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Mayor John Cooper introduced the performers who received a star – DeFord Bailey, Lady Antebellum, Mac McAnally, Clint Black and Chet Atkins. Mayor Cooper first acknowledged the Walk of Fame’s first star honoring the Fisk Jubilee Singers. “We are so fortunate to have this unique place to recognize and mark those individuals who have been a part of making Music City what it is today – all the way back to the Fisk Jubilee Singers the very first inductees when the Walk of Fame opened on November 5th, 2006. The Fisk ensemble has honorably served as cultural ambassadors for both their university and for Nashville since 1871, breaking racial barriers as they entertained American presidents and European royalty and we want to thank them for carrying on that proud tradition today.”
Mayor Cooper noted DeFord Bailey’s challenging start in life in a rural family in Smith who went on to become “the first African American to perform on the Grand Ole Opry as a child – he contracted polio and was bedridden for a year. And with only the use of his hands and his arms he learned to play the harmonica and eventually becoming one of the most significant African American country musicians in history – that we may all someday know that kind of strength.”
DeFord described the music he learned to play as a child as “black hillbilly music.” That style of music was part of a tradition of secular string-band music played by rural people. The Carolina Chocolate Drops have more recently put a spotlight on the integral part Black musicians had on rural roots music that became part of the country music genre.
“The sidewalk stars before you tell the story of both the diversity of genres right here in Nashville and the world class artists who call Nashville home,” said Mayor Cooper.
The number of stars on the Walk of Fame now number 89. DeFord Bailey’s star memorializes his contribution to music along with other black musicians CeCe Winans, Jimi Hendrix, Dr. Bobby Jones, Little Richard, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The park is located on Demombreum and 4th across from the Country Music Hall of Fame.