DeFord Bailey (1899–1982), an African American harmonica virtuoso, performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry radio program from 1926 to 1941 and afterward fell into obscurity. Decades later, however, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame (2005), overseen by the Country Music Association (CMA), amid calls to diversify a predominantly white country music canon. Motivated by racially progressive ideals and seeking to rehabilitate the genre's image, many fans and industry advocates misrepresented Bailey's achievements in the surrounding conversations, or they relied upon essentializing notions of black music in their advocacy on his behalf. Resistance to his candidacy for the Hall was cited as evidence of the industry's institutionalized racism. While his eventual induction allowed the CMA some room in which to refute that charge and promote a multiracial narrative for the genre's history, consistent with its long-standing desire to cultivate middle-class respectability, that same multiracial narrative obscured Bailey's role in the production of a distinctly white image for country music in the 1920s and 1930s. Highlighting this discrepancy, this article compares the historical and contemporary reception of Bailey's music and legacy, drawing upon newspaper accounts, Opry promotional materials, archival interviews, and commercial recordings. Opry broadcasts played host to blues, blackface, and other racially coded repertoires; Bailey's blues-based style did not distinguish him from his white Opry peers. Opry marketing worked assiduously to present a singular white image for the show and its repertoire, marginalizing or obscuring Bailey's racial identity in its programming and publicity. In this manner, Bailey's career has paradoxically been made to serve narratives asserting both the whiteness and the multiracialism of country music.
DeFord Bailey in Country Music's Multiracial Canon
SAMUEL PARLER is Assistant Professor of Music History at Baylor University. He is a member of the American Musicological Society's Popular Music Study Group and a recipient of awards from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Society for American Music. He is currently at work on a monograph about race and respectability politics in country music media prior to 1950.
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Samuel Parler; DeFord Bailey in Country Music's Multiracial Canon. Journal of the American Musicological Society 1 April 2020; 73 (1): 53–94. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jams.2020.73.1.53
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