Pan American Blues: Why DeFord Bailey Should Be in the Country Music Hall of Fame
This business of racial music profiling wasn’t a concept that ever occurred to me growing up as an African-American in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the 1950s and early ’60s. Until James Brown purchased a low-power AM station in town during the late ’60s, country music dominated the broadcast airwaves, and that’s what you heard if you cut on the radio before midnight.
After midnight was another story. Then you could get the robust, earthy tones of Big John R, Hoss Allen and the crew on WLAC cutting across the night, while the flacks at Ernie’s and Randy’s hawked soul, R&B and blues 45s in bundles, and teens fell asleep to Muddy, Wolf, Etta James, whomever.
So it was no big deal to hear Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in the daytime, then Ray Charles and B.B. King at night. Maybe it was just the naivete of someone isolated from the cultural wars raging in big cities over such burning topics as whether white boys could sing the blues, but the notion that people’s listening preferences and musical aptitudes were intrinsic to the color of their skin never occurred to me.
Years later, after playing jazz and classical piano, and listening to everything from reggae and soca back to R&B, soul and country, it repulses me that there remain people making assumptions about musical taste strictly on the basis of race, whether it be African-Americans disturbed at white teens who want to rap, or country club snobs turning up their noses because symphony orchestras in the city recruit black and Latin players to join the string section.
It certainly never occurred to DeFord Bailey when he was a member of the original Grand Ole Opry that he wasn’t playing real country music. Bailey was phenomenal harmonica ace who was also a gifted guitarist, fiddler and banjo picker.
Bailey’s instrumental prowess was honed by his father and uncle during his childhood years in Carthage, a small town about an hour east of Nashville. Proficient enough at 14 to begin earning a living as a professional, Bailey moved to Nashville, where he was brought to the Opry’s attention in the mid-’20s by Dr. Humphrey Bate, a solid instrumentalist himself. Granted, some elements of Bailey’s wondrous style reflected blues influences, but overall his approach and sound reflected a strong country allegiance and preference.
As the Opry’s first black and first solo star, DeFord Bailey has historical importance that long ago earned him the right to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It is both sad and troubling that it has never happened. I yield to no one in admiration and respect for Charley Pride, but Bailey should have been the Hall’s first African-American inductee.
No fair-minded individual wants to think rank racial considerations are keeping Bailey out today. Instead, when you talk to people working in the current Hall, they cite his lack of recording credentials and hit records. They don’t mention Bailey’s controversial 1941 firing over an alleged refusal to learn new songs, because quite frankly almost everything now known about that disgraceful incident indicates that the reasons given were laughable. Even those who downplay the racial aspects pose an alternately unfair explanation, that Bailey was an early casualty of the ASCAP/BMI licensing wars.
While you can find no shortage of those inside and outside the country industry who will admit, off the record of course, that Bailey deserves induction, there’s little push being made, outside of some efforts in the black community, to get him there. In fact, the feeling is that anyone initiating such a move would hurt Bailey far more than help him, because the unseen and unknown voting body that makes these decisions considers itself above mere lobbying. Apparently they would respond negatively to any outside efforts designed to pressure them into even placing Bailey on the ballot, let alone voting him into the Hall.
While I’ve heard and treasured as much of the classic DeFord Bailey sides from 1927 and 1928 that have surfaced, plus everything that was compiled on the majestic 1998 release The Legendary DeFord Bailey (Revenant/Tennessee Folklore Society), the case for his induction shouldn’t depend on stats or recordings.
Bailey was an innovator and superb musician. No one, not even the great Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs or Toots Thielemans or Charlie McCoy, has ever blown a more stirring and searing harmonica riff than Bailey. He could strum, flail, play with poise and beauty, or make you feel his heart ache as he brilliantly executed woeful melodic lines and refrains. Bailey’s signature tune “Pan American Blues” bowls me over every time, just as thoroughly as Jacobs’ “Juke” or Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”.
As an African-American performing on a Southern stage during an era when overt racism was the order of the day, Bailey always maintained his dignity, invariably appearing onstage in a three-piece suit and polished shoes. After he was sacked, he didn’t hesitate to attack what he considered racist treatment and a severe injustice. Bailey knew he was supremely talented, and that his skills hadn’t degenerated.
He did make a 1974 appearance at the Opry on an “old-timers show,” but by then what should have been a lengthy and distinguished career on country’s prime stage had long since been soured and destroyed. The sorry treatment Bailey endured can’t be repaired by placing him in the Hall, but it would go a long way toward making his descendants regard Nashville as truly changed, and the country music industry as finally willing to redress past ugly actions.
If the Country Music Hall of Fame is intended to represent those whose work was integral to country’s stylistic evolution and progress, then it shouldn’t shut out DeFord Bailey. He deserves induction because of his contributions to the music as a whole, just as the great Negro League baseball players unfairly kept out of the majors prior to 1947 have finally been recognized and inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It is a case of simple justice.