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.
Recent visitors to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville may notice a new emphasis given to country music's black performers.1 A few artifacts stand out: Ray Charles's embroidered silk suit, Charley Pride's Grammy Awards, and his tuxedo from the 1971 Country Music Association Awards. Gold-certified albums by Charles and Pride hang on a nearby wall, attesting to their popularity and lucrative careers. The museum's main exhibit is front-loaded with evidence demonstrating the role of black musicians in the genre's early development, including rare video footage of banjoist Uncle John Scruggs and sheet music for James A. Bland's “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” A placard frankly acknowledges the debt: “Since Colonial times, African Americans have strongly influenced country music.” A number of temporary exhibits at the museum have explored these connections in greater depth.2 These moments can be surprising, jolting visitors out of their preconceived notions of the genre's whiteness. Since the 1920s, popular histories had routinely characterized country music as the “white man's blues,” locating its origins in Anglo-Saxon and Appalachian folk culture and regarding its repertoire as a manifestation of white, working-class subjectivity.3 This image has persisted in the popular imagination, even as academics have long acknowledged the presence of musicians of color within country music's history.4 Now, drawing on decades of scholarship, the Hall of Fame and Museum articulates an image of country music that is more attuned to its multiracial past.5 In so doing, it joins recent efforts by other museums around the country to reshape public memory toward a more nuanced understanding of the United States' diverse cultural history.6
A major turning point that helped to usher in a new multiracial narrative of country music history was the debate over the legacy of African American harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey (1899–1982), who was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005 (see figure 1). Obscure at the time of his death, Bailey had been a consistently popular member of the Grand Ole Opry radio program, broadcast on Nashville's WSM radio station, where he performed nearly every week from 1926 until 1941.7 He also participated in three commercial recording sessions during that period, yielding eleven commercial releases. Notably, Bailey's recording career included the first sessions ever held in Nashville, in October 1928.8 Yet his path to induction into the Hall of Fame was attended by intense, sometimes acrimonious debate. In addition to celebrating his talent and foundational role in building country music institutions, many journalists, historians, and fans framed his candidacy in starkly racial terms. Inducting Bailey, some argued, would serve as a much-needed public acknowledgment of African American contributions to the genre and help to redress country music's history of racial exploitation; prior to Bailey's induction, Charley Pride was the only performer of color in the Hall of Fame, an accolade commemorated by a plaque in the museum's Hall of Fame Rotunda and substantial media attention.9 Those who expressed skepticism about Bailey's qualifications for the Hall were widely accused of racial prejudice, and the question of his candidacy became a proxy debate over the merits of multiculturalism and racial politics within the industry as a whole. For the Country Music Association (CMA), the industry trade group that administers the Hall of Fame elections, arguments in favor of canonizing Bailey ultimately proved persuasive. His induction allowed the industry to promote a feel-good story of multiracial solidarity and healing. This attitude prevailed at Bailey's induction ceremony, held during the 39th Annual CMA Music Awards on November 15, 2005, where members of his family accepted the award on his behalf.10 Addressing the audience later that evening, drummer Mark Herndon of the band Alabama observed that “there's a lot of love in this room, and in the case of DeFord, I think there's a little justice too.”11 Herndon thus summed up the sense of progress that Bailey's induction seemed to represent.
At times, however, the debate and subsequent round of self-congratulation eclipsed a deeper discussion of the complexities arising from Bailey's status as a black performer within a genre that was, and continues to be, predominantly white. This article compares his historical and contemporary reception in order to highlight the way the country music industry has used Bailey's story and music to present the genre as alternately white and multiracial, depending upon shifting industry and audience priorities. His posthumous advocates often point to his achievements as evidence of country music's multiracial roots and its historically integrated workforce, even during the period of Jim Crow segregation. Bailey's musical labor nevertheless contributed to an emphatically white culture of music production, marketing, and consumption. From the perspective of radio audiences in the 1920s and 1930s, his blues-based repertoire hardly distinguished him from his white Opry costars. White Opry management regularly played host to blues, blackface, and other racially fraught repertoires and performance modes. In uncanny and uncomfortable ways, the discourse surrounding Bailey's induction into the Hall of Fame recalled and even reproduced these same dynamics sixty years later. His induction provoked soul-searching conversations and might well have opened doors to more performers of color. But it also signaled a white industry's seizing of the rhetoric of multiracialism as a mark of middle-class respectability and good publicity, using Bailey to maintain the industry's long and enduring history of white hegemony.12 Absent a more thoroughgoing historical revisionism, canonizing Bailey risks mere tokenism, forestalling momentum toward racial justice and equality within the contemporary country music industry.
Hall of Fame Advocacy and Resistance
DeFord Bailey's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005 followed a long advocacy campaign dating back to the 1970s, waged by historians, journalists, other industry figures, and fans. These advocates pursued three main rhetorical strategies in making their case. Most prominent was an evaluation of Bailey's professional achievements and contributions to country music institutions—a common strategy for promoting nominees. Advocacy along these lines invoked race sparingly. Second, when Bailey's candidacy ran into resistance among some Hall of Fame voters, accusations of systemic racism within the industry began to gather force, advocates framing his potential induction as an antidote to that racism and a way to redress historical injustices. Finally, and most problematically, some advocates recast Bailey in the image of a civil rights hero, while describing his music in racially essentialist terms that radically oversimplified its development and reception.
In presenting these arguments, Bailey's supporters clearly grasped the institutional motivations and history of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Founded in 1961 by the CMA, the Hall of Fame emerged alongside other mid-century projects aimed at achieving a more respectable middle-class image for the industry. Postwar prosperity had lifted millions of country music listeners into the middle class, and Nashville industry leadership responded with new, more polished musical styles and publicity campaigns to suit their listeners' new lifestyles.13 No less important, from a business perspective, were the CMA's efforts to document and publicize country music history via the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Foundation (CMF), an archival and educational institution established in 1964. As Diane Pecknold has argued, the creation of both the Hall of Fame and the CMF was motivated by the CMA's desire for legitimacy in the eyes of academic historians and cultural elites, who had long ignored country as lowbrow music unworthy of study. At the same time, these institutions allowed the CMA to continuously reshape the contours of country music history from within, in ways that would benefit the industry itself.14 This flexible and self-serving approach to country music's history would prove especially important in the run-up to Bailey's Hall of Fame induction.
The construction of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 1967 required the CMA to balance its desire for cultural legitimacy and respectability with commercial considerations. Curated by CMF staff, the new building included a bronze plaque for each Hall of Fame inductee, a twenty-five-minute film on country music history, a mock-up of a Nashville recording studio, and performer artifacts.15 The Hall of Fame and Museum quickly became an important tourist destination for country music fans, drawing up to 4,000 visitors a week in its early years and bringing significant business to the city of Nashville.16 The venue's modest size and inconvenient location, situated a mile and a half from downtown at the north end of Nashville's Music Row neighborhood, eventually proved unsatisfactory, and a new, $37 million museum was constructed in 2002 in the downtown cultural district, with yearly attendance in the millions.17 With its prominent location, imposing physical structure, and impressive price tag, the new building provided substantial space for housing archival collections while satisfying tourist expectations for a modern home for country music—a testament to the industry's upwardly mobile aspirations, and perhaps an indication that those aspirations had largely been achieved.18
The balloting procedure to determine Hall of Fame inductees likewise reflects this dual focus on generating tourist dollars while also attempting to shape the genre's history. Since the 1960s, Hall of Fame electors have been CMA-affiliated performers and industry figures chosen by the CMA board of directors. The list of electors is anonymous, although electors are free to publicly identify themselves.19 This anonymity, intended to prevent direct lobbying, also had the effect of shielding most electors from individual accountability or critique—a situation that clearly inflected the debate about Bailey's candidacy. For much of the Hall's history, the CMA followed an unrestricted nomination process. Roughly three hundred electors nominated candidates on the basis of ten criteria, “ranging from music quality and professionalism to the candidate's influence on the industry.”20 Electors then voted on the list of finalists to determine the new inductees. One consequence of this approach was that electors tended to favor performers who were active within living memory, older generations of musicians being increasingly passed over or forgotten. But in the early 2000s, consistent with its concern for generating cultural prestige, the CMA adopted an “Old Timers” category in its annual balloting process, intended to recognize nominees who had achieved popularity prior to World War II.21 Bailey was among the first beneficiaries of the new category. The CMA sought to balance the induction of older, lesser-known artists by simultaneously instituting another category “to honor acts that achieved prominence since 1975.”22 According to Ed Benson, CMA executive director at the time, the creation of these two new categories was intended to make the Hall “relevant for today's fans, while recognizing artists who've made an indelible impact on country music.”23 The popular 1980s band Alabama, inducted together with Bailey and Glen Campbell in 2005, were among the first performers elected under the new system.24 The new nomination rules reaffirmed the CMA's long-standing efforts to please two distinct constituencies—average fans, who keep country music lucrative, and the cultural elites whose attention helps to keep it respectable.
Intentionally or not, the development of these new categories eased Bailey's path to induction, demonstrating the CMA's willingness to reengineer its canon in the face of changing priorities and public demands. Information about the voting history behind Bailey's Hall of Fame candidacy is unfortunately unavailable; the anonymous list of electors changes yearly, and no archival evidence is known to exist that might indicate who first nominated him and when, how many years he was nominated, or what the vote tallies were.25 This lack of transparency is perhaps unsurprising given the CMA's tight control over all aspects of the industry, including the power to shape historical narratives. The trade and popular press nevertheless provide considerable insight into the debate over Bailey's candidacy, revealing that more was at stake than simply according recognition to an early country musician. Tracing the rhetoric relating to his candidacy from the 1970s onward shows a country music industry increasingly sensitive to charges of institutional racism. At least in part, Bailey's eventual induction appears to have resulted from the industry's nascent embrace of racial diversity as a new component of middle-class respectability, even if the “Old Timers” category under which he was nominated partly obscured the racial dimension of this history. Although claims of multiracialism were relatively new for the industry in the early 2000s, they were ultimately consistent with the CMA's long-standing concern for respectability.
Bailey's earliest advocates recognized the significance of his race for any assessment of his career and legacy, and some surely longed for a more thorough celebration of African American contributions to country music. Yet many simply wished to rescue him from obscurity, to share his fascinating story and his music with the wider public. And many felt that recovering his biography could ultimately widen the door to greater racial parity and social justice within the industry. From the 1970s until his induction in 2005, advocacy for Bailey took several forms: interviews, books, articles, reissued recordings, live performances, and memorials.26 A chronological survey of these materials reveals that the 1970s were largely years of rediscovery rather than overt Hall of Fame lobbying.27 Calls for Bailey's induction began in earnest following his death in 1982. After a lull in the later 1980s, the debate reignited in the 1990s, perhaps spurred on by the publication of Bailey's biography in 1991. The conversation continued steadily from that point through 2005, taking place especially in local Nashville publications like The Tennessean. In reconstructing this history, I will highlight the main rhetorical threads running throughout thirty years of debate, rather than following a strictly chronological presentation of arguments made for or against Bailey's candidacy.
Few advocates did more to advance Bailey's cause than his friend, manager, and biographer, David C. Morton. A white man with no connections to the music industry, Morton met Bailey in 1973 while working for the Nashville Housing Authority. Morton wrote human interest stories for the agency's newsletter and approached Bailey, then living in public housing, at the suggestion of his boss. In time, Bailey befriended Morton, granting him unprecedented access to his personal collections and participating in nearly forty interviews with him.28 As Morton continued his research into Bailey's career and began to publish his findings in the local press, he met the country music historian Charles K. Wolfe, who pointed Morton to other resources and interview subjects. Eventually, the two writers collaborated on a biography, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music, published in 1991. The book has since become the standard account of Bailey's life and career.29
As the case for Bailey's Hall of Fame candidacy gathered steam following his death, Morton and Wolfe's research provided supporters with a well-rehearsed list of his qualifications. His contributions to country music's institutional history were especially prominent in the conversation. Advocates for induction regularly cited Bailey's role in popularizing the Opry, which had introduced country music to a national audience and proved pivotal for the industry's early commercial success.30 Minnie Pearl, an Opry cast member from the 1940s, was one of many to make this argument in Bailey's favor, saying in 1982, “Let's face it, they [early Opry performers] started it. … We didn't start with people making $50,000 a night, rolling around in buses and making network television shows. They came in here and picked for nothing, played for the joy of it and were perpetuating a feeling. DeFord was one of them and I think he should get credit.”31 Others noted Bailey's participation in Nashville's first recording sessions in 1928, as well as the fact that his trademark piece, “Pan-American Blues,” was the first performance broadcast on the newly rechristened Grand Ole Opry program in 1927.32 These biographical details were sometimes distorted, perhaps unintentionally, in order to amplify Bailey's historical significance. For its obituary, The Tennessean ran the misleading title “Death Claims DeFord Bailey at 82; Was Grand Ole Opry's 1st Musician.”33 In fact, the WSM Barn Dance, later renamed the Grand Ole Opry, was first broadcast in 1925, one year before Bailey joined the cast. In a similar fashion, the Nashville Banner incorrectly noted that Bailey was “the first artist to record in Nashville,” a distinction that actually belongs to the Binkley Brothers' Dixie Clodhoppers; Bailey recorded four days later.34
Despite these qualifications, a number of skeptics cautioned that the campaign to induct Bailey faced an uphill battle, given the economic motivations of the Hall of Fame itself. Unlike most of the Hall's inductees, Bailey lacked the name recognition to draw tourists or spur record sales and merchandising.35 His disadvantages also included an unfamiliar, arguably outdated musical style with little connection to contemporary country music. Journalist Frye Gaillard summed up the opinion of many Nashville musicians when he noted that the Hall “is like much of the rest of Nashville's music industry: It is swayed very heavily by success that can be measured in dollars and cents.”36 Opry singer Roy Acuff also cited industry concerns: “I think the Hall of Fame is, ‘What have you done to further country music?’ When it comes to that question, DeFord would fall way down. … He had nothing else to offer except his harmonica and two or three numbers to play. He couldn't progress that much.”37 For Acuff, Bailey's lack of stylistic influence overshadowed his considerable role in the early Opry, which certainly helped to further country music. As late as 2002, Charles Wolfe lamented, “What happens when I try to lobby for [Bailey] … what I got all the time is ‘he didn't make very many recordings.’”38 Even Minnie Pearl's defense of Bailey as one who “picked for nothing, played for the joy of it” acknowledged the important role of sales; it was only through the work of Bailey and other Opry pioneers, she observed, that later generations could garner “$50,000 a night.” For many of the Hall's electors, a big name and a lucrative career remained the surest path to induction. Such financial success proved elusive to Bailey. In part, this reflected the circumstances of an industry still in its infancy when he built his career. But it also reflected the economic injustices of the Jim Crow era.
If Bailey's achievements alone failed to convince Hall of Fame electors, some advocates found that interrogating the industry's racial politics could be more persuasive. For these critics, resistance to Bailey's Hall of Fame bid was a reminder of entrenched racial prejudice within the industry as a whole. Shortly after his death, the Chicago Defender, a prominent African American paper, ran an editorial that was critical of what it described as country music's racial exclusivity: “Prejudice, both artistically and historically, showed its ugly, cancerous character when, after Bailey's death, it was debated whether his contributions merited recognition with the 35 immortals, living and dead, who are in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”39 John Egerton, a Nashville historian, also saw Bailey's absence from the Hall as a symptom of anti-black prejudice. In an interview with the New York Times, he observed, “It would be a tragic miscarriage if the industry failed to honor Bailey. … This man was not a Johnny One-Note, and people in country music ought to be embarrassed for their gallery of heroes to remain all white. They owe too much to black musicians and black music.”40 Wolfe, in turn, flatly cited racism as the reason for Bailey's exclusion in an interview of 2002: “That's the only ugly conclusion I can come to … They don't want him in because he's black.”41 Faced with a long history of institutional racism, many viewed Bailey's potential induction as both an implicit critique of the country music industry and a form of reparative justice. Wolfe summed up the views of many of Bailey's supporters, for whom recognition of black contributions took precedence over other, more quantifiable achievements: “He belongs there [in the Hall of Fame], not because he had a bunch of hit records or because he was doing a lot of touring, but in a symbolic way he belongs there. He represents the absolute tap roots of Grand Ole Opry music.”42
As a consequence of his ambivalence toward Bailey's candidacy, Acuff became a prominent lightning rod for criticism, seeming to some to epitomize the worst of the industry's outdated racial politics. As both a fellow Opry member with Bailey in the 1930s and a self-identified Hall of Fame elector, Acuff appeared regularly in interviews about his colleague. In coverage in The Tennessean, Acuff recalled Bailey's experiences touring the segregated South: “He never had a bad word to say about [segregation] and was understanding. … I took care of him when we had trouble finding rooms or places to eat. He was real gentlemanly about it. I would have given anything if things could have been the way they are now. But that's the way it was back then.”43 Acuff's after-the-fact critique of Jim Crow might well read as self-serving and unconvincing. In fact, while Bailey's white costar accommodated Bailey's needs as a touring musician, he clearly tolerated segregation, hardly challenging a system from which he himself had benefitted.44 Bailey's daughter, Dezoral Bailey Thomas, later critiqued Acuff for his insensitivity, recalling a conversation that took place shortly after her father's death: “[Acuff] stood beside me and said, ‘We're gonna miss DeFord. He made me what I am today. Nobody knew a Roy Acuff, but everyone had heard of a DeFord Bailey and I took him everywhere with me.’ … I took that to be a little out of place especially at a time like this to listen to Roy Acuff who leaned on this poor Black man and got famous. He earned everything and my father got nothing.”45 Acuff's skepticism toward Bailey's qualifications for induction into the Hall of Fame led to critical editorials in The Tennessean as well as the Chicago Defender.46 Although Acuff pledged in 1982 to vote for Bailey's induction should he be nominated, this did little to mollify Acuff's critics, and Bailey remained excluded from the Hall of Fame at the time of Acuff's death in 1992.47 The criticism elicited by Acuff perhaps discouraged other electors from openly expressing reservations about Bailey's qualifications, even as they continued to silently deny his candidacy.
Like many in the country music industry, Acuff remained blind to the ways in which white privilege and racial appropriation had played into his own success. While recent scholarship has documented regular, mutual exchange between black and white musicians in country music throughout much of the twentieth century, this occurred against a social backdrop of racial inequality, with the financial benefits accruing primarily to white performers.48 The Acuff-Bailey power dynamic mirrored that of other white country and rockabilly artists who cited black musicians as a formative influence; such figures included Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley. All of those men achieved fame and fortune, while their black counterparts remained largely anonymous and unpaid.49 Presley, originally advertised as a country musician, has been subjected to particularly intense scrutiny, as audiences and scholars weigh his appropriation of black styles against his public attitudes concerning race and his broader impact upon race relations within popular culture.50 Acuff's post hoc efforts to appear racially progressive, sincere or otherwise, reflected a budding acknowledgment that country music needed to embrace multiracialism in the public sphere. Yet, as Dezoral Bailey Thomas implied, such historical revisionism could appear cynical and seemed to marginalize patterns of racial exploitation in its efforts to redeem country music history.
Stung by charges of racism, some industry figures played damage control by urging patience and citing Bailey's lack of name recognition as a possible barrier to his induction. In an interview of 2000, CMA executive director Ed Benson disclosed that Bailey had appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for three consecutive years and that his induction was “probably a matter of time.” In this regard, Benson assured supporters, Bailey's case was hardly unusual: “Very seldom does a person get into the Hall of Fame the first time he or she is nominated. Some names have come up for many years, and they're still not in.”51 Even after Bailey had been inducted, Benson deflected charges of racial bias by arguing that he had simply been unfamiliar to younger Hall of Fame voters. Bailey was so long denied, he explained, because the panel of electors “gets younger every year. … As time goes on, some of these early pioneers of country music, particularly those who came to prominence before World War II, there are fewer people around who have a personal connection to them.”52 Some industry figures pushed back more pointedly against claims of systemic racism. After Bailey was passed over once again in 2002, Scott Stern, a media relations director for the CMA, scoffed at the notion that he had been denied a place in the Hall on account of his race, conceding instead that his era as a whole was underrepresented: “Many of [Bailey's] contemporaries have yet to become members. No one is excluded because of their race, as evidenced by Charley Pride's induction into the Hall of Fame in 2000.”53 Yet, by then, deflections like Stern's seemed increasingly untenable.
The CMA's need to defend country music against allegations of racism became especially acute in the years immediately preceding Bailey's admission. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, inspired dozens of topical country songs, many of which fed a public perception of country performers and fans as bigoted. Songs like Darryl Worley's “Have You Forgotten?” (2003) and Toby Keith's “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” (2002)—with its unforgettable threat to terrorists to “put a boot in your ass, it's the American way”—came under criticism for an unthinking vengefulness and ebullient jingoism. The Charlie Daniels Band's “This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag” (2001) engaged in more overt Islamophobia by mocking turbans, comparing terrorists to “dirty little mole[s],” and fantasizing about their violent deaths.54 After the Dixie Chicks' lead singer Natalie Maines criticized George W. Bush during a concert in London in March 2003, the ensuing backlash and boycotts from country music fans provided critics with further evidence that the genre was politically retrograde.55 Such publicity compounded the CMA's sensitivity to charges of racism at a pivotal moment. The industry's embrace of Bailey's candidacy could serve as a powerful rebuttal to these negative views.
In addition to citing Bailey's career achievements and critiquing the music industry's historical racism, some advocates sought to position him as a heroic figure in the mold of a civil rights leader. Morton and Wolfe's 1991 biography provided the template for such narratives, stressing in particular the racial politics that had shaped Bailey's career. The biographers thoroughly investigated the difficulties he had faced in a white-dominated industry during a time of legal segregation and intense anti-black prejudice. These included the indignities of touring the South during Jim Crow segregation, racial disparities in compensation for recording sessions and Opry performances, the paternalism Bailey had suffered at the hands of Opry management, his dismissal from the Opry in 1941 for failing to abide by the ASCAP boycott, and the racist caricatures circulated by Opry personnel after his firing.56 Perhaps just as important was Morton and Wolfe's decision to foreground Bailey's perspective through generous quotations from the musician himself, giving him a substantial role in shaping posthumous conversations about his legacy. In earlier interviews with Morton, Bailey had regarded his race as a definite barrier in terms of his professional advancement and artistic freedom, and had recognized a racial double standard at the Opry: “If they had let me play like I wanted, I could have stole the show. If I had been a white man, I could have done it. They held me down … I wasn't free.”57 Instead, he said, he had self-consciously censored and groomed his act to avoid trouble, omitting somersaults and other acrobatic tricks.58 These restrictions, he believed, had limited his financial success, while white artists had grown rich performing similar histrionics.59 Bailey nevertheless advocated reconciliation and downplayed the inequalities of segregation. Noting that “Jim Crow didn't mean a thing to me,” he recalled performing harmonica for white passengers on segregated streetcars.60 The antipathy he felt for show business, he assured his biographers, was directed only toward those who had cheated him, not toward all whites.61 Instead, he spoke strongly in favor of interracial cooperation, reflecting in an interview of 1980 that “the black is got to fight for the white and the white got to fight for the black.”62 Bailey's openness to racial reconciliation, despite the injustices he had experienced, would have resonated with the aims of many CMA electors in the 1990s and early 2000s, newly anxious to discredit charges of systemic racism in the industry. These quotations might therefore have made him a more attractive candidate for canonization in the Hall of Fame.
Some advocates leaned on Morton and Wolfe's biography in their attempts to position Bailey as a trailblazing black performer within a white cultural scene. Indeed, he was often imagined as a fearless musician determined to break the color line. He was routinely compared to figures from the Civil Rights Movement who stood up to Jim Crow segregation. An opinion piece in The Tennessean described Bailey as the “Jackie Robinson of country music” for “breaking the color barrier.”63 Blues musician Aashid Himons made the same comparison:
The parallel here is the Negro league in baseball. I think the same thing was happening. These great ball players were growing up totally ostracized and isolated. Finally, the industry came around and some of them are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That's the same thing I think the country music industry has to do. That's why DeFord's induction in the Hall of Fame will say to white[s] and African-Americans: African-Americans played a role in the development because that's where this all started.64
A heroic narrative was nevertheless adopted for Bailey's official Hall of Fame biography upon his induction, one that framed his career as a series of firsts and emphasized the multiracial nature of his repertoire and appeal.68 Drawing upon Morton and Wolfe's book, the Hall's website currently describes Bailey as “country's first African-American star,” one who participated in “the first major label session ever held in Nashville.” His musical upbringing, we read, included “a tradition of secular string-band music actually shared by rural black and white musicians alike.” Once he joined the Opry, the website continues, “scores of amateur and professional harmonica players—black and white alike—eagerly listened to his performances.” While Bailey's acrimonious split with the Opry in 1941 is acknowledged in the Hall of Fame biography, it is balanced with a face-saving but misleading assurance that, during his Opry tenure, “he remained one of the program's best loved—and best paid—stars.”69 And even after parting ways with the Opry, the official biography continues, “he refused to become embittered, and stressed the importance of keeping ‘a good heart.’” This sanitized version of Bailey's career seems carefully crafted to present the country music industry in the best plausible light. In this celebratory account, commercial country has been multiracial all along—in its sound, its personnel, and its audiences. Despite a few minor sins, the industry's progressivism is held to reach back to the 1920s via equitable compensation practices. And Bailey himself appears in the mold of a civil rights legend—musically, historically, and morally worthy of the Hall of Fame honor. In terms of public relations, the CMA ultimately had much to gain from Bailey's belated induction into the Hall of Fame.
The momentum for greater recognition of black artists that had propelled Bailey's induction in 2005 quickly dissipated thereafter. As of 2019, no other performers of color have since been admitted to the Hall of Fame; we have now seen a fifteen-year run of exclusively white inductees. Bailey's singular induction into the Hall of Fame might thus be regarded as mere tokenism. To be sure, it sparked conversations about the role of race in country music's history, and commercial country today boasts more performers of color than it did in previous eras. But Bailey's induction also allowed industry figures to dismiss charges of racial prejudice and to reframe country music as racially progressive with a minimum of effort, even as country music, past and present, has remained dominated by white performers. Any racial justice achieved by canonizing Bailey has proven largely symbolic. The benefits of the new rhetoric of multiracialism accrue as much to an established white industry practicing a politics of respectability as to performers of color.
Bailey, the Blues, and Country Music
In the debates between advocates and skeptics over Bailey's fitness for the Hall of Fame, his musical style and repertoire played a secondary role. This distinguished him from most other Hall of Fame inductees, whose hit recordings have tended to furnish the most compelling arguments for their candidacies, to judge from press reporting. Assessing Bailey according to a different set of criteria, even when motivated by progressive ideals, effectively devalued his musicianship. On the rare occasions when his music did enter the conversation, well-meaning advocates often framed it in racially essentialist terms as intrinsically black. This occurred most often via comparison to genres such as jazz and the blues, genres with a public reputation and historiography that have emphasized their role as vehicles of African American expression.70 Intended to acknowledge country music's multiracial history more fully, such approaches contrasted markedly with the way audiences of the 1920s and 1930s typically understood Bailey's music. The Opry during these decades embraced an explicitly white, rural image, ostensibly based on Euro-American folk origins, even as blues and blackface performances complicated such claims. Moreover, evidence suggests that radio audiences of the time widely regarded Bailey's performances on the Opry as wholly consistent with the program's white image. The remainder of this article considers Bailey's music and career in light of this complex and surprising history. The discrepancy between historical and more recent reception underscores the ways in which his music has been interpreted differently over time in support of opposing ideas about race and country music. Ironically, the desire to uplift musicians of color and to diversify a canon led some advocates to perpetuate ahistorical, essentialist notions of black musical style. Most problematically, such essentialism actually helped to enable the Hall of Fame's retroactive claims to a multiracial identity, conveniently obscuring country's long historical reception as a white music.
For Hall of Fame advocates who engaged deeply with his music, Bailey's repertoire served two lines of argument. The first emphasized country music as a racially and stylistically diverse genre. Bailey's music, advocates reasoned, helped to reveal the music's multiracial roots, thereby justifying his Hall of Fame induction. Charles Wolfe memorably described Bailey's musical eclecticism in an interview of 2002: “He helped broaden the definition of country music. Before DeFord Bailey, country was seen as fiddle tunes and old Irish ballads. But DeFord Bailey helped make country music be like a river with all these different streams flowing into it.”71 While Wolfe painted country music as a romanticized racial melting pot, several other advocates strategically described Bailey's repertoire as “black hillbilly” music.72 The “black hillbilly” label, which Bailey himself used to refer to his musical upbringing, seemed calibrated to subvert racial expectations about so-called “hillbilly” music, a term typically reserved for the music of whites.73 Surprising and apparently self-contradictory, “black hillbilly” referred to a performance style that was widespread among rural, Southern black communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which string instruments such as banjo and guitar predominated; perhaps because of its overlap with the white string band tradition, it has long been obscured in histories of African American music of the era, which tend to favor jazz and blues.74 Applied strictly to Bailey, the “black hillbilly” label could be musically imprecise: his recordings and Opry performances were on harmonica, not string instruments. Yet within articles on Bailey's Hall of Fame candidacy, invocations of the “black hillbilly” term were also meant to shed light on a forgotten history of rural black musicking and to acknowledge the broader influence of black music and musicians within country music. As one article explained, “Some of the instruments used in the musical idiom [of country music], such as the banjo and guitar, are of African origin.”75 Such an observation indirectly posited a multiracial history for country music, at least on a stylistic level. It was, according to such statements, not merely an exclusively white music, and its sound had not been developed exclusively by white musicians.
A second, related line of argument in favor of Bailey's candidacy focused on the ostensible racial authenticity of his performances. Some advocates invoked other racially coded genres, especially blues and jazz, in describing his music. In so doing, they sometimes implied that it articulated an innate, fundamentally black approach to music making, one unavailable to white musicians. This racial essentialism borrowed much from contemporary popular discourse about jazz and blues.76 It was a view to which Bailey himself subscribed. He argued in an unpublished interview with David Morton that “white people, they don't know about the feeling of [the blues], not too much.” On the other hand, “We can sing, we're natural-born to sing, black people.”77 Among the advocates who linked Bailey to these genres was fellow musician James Talley, who explained to a reporter shortly after Bailey's death that “DeFord … was the blues.”78 Another profile claimed in 1993 that Bailey “had the soul of a jazz artist, often improvising on the spot, each performance slightly different and equally special.”79 Again, such assertions typically avoided in-depth stylistic discussion of his repertoire and the complicating racial contexts in which it was performed. Instead, by comparing his music to other black-coded and more aesthetically prestigious genres, advocates promoted Bailey's Hall of Fame candidacy in terms of his unique musical contributions while also undercutting country music's perceived whiteness. Inadvertently or otherwise, in arguing for Bailey's artistry, some contemporary listeners interpreted his music in racially coded terms that were quite different from those assumed by a historical listenership.
To be clear, Bailey was an important proponent of blues styles in early country music. The issue is that the presence of the blues did not fundamentally distinguish his musicianship from that of white performers on the Opry, nor did listeners at the time regard it as the most distinctive or interesting feature of his music. Most of his repertoire consisted of solo harmonica pieces, many of them centered on onomatopoeic imitations of animals or trains. And despite the prevalence of blues elements in his work, reception of Bailey's music in the 1920s and 1930s focused on the fidelity of his mimetic representations to their real-world subjects. His most celebrated and most often performed piece, “Pan-American Blues,” was famous for its virtuosic mimicry of train sounds: the departing bell, the acceleration of wheels on the tracks, and finally the train chugging along at high speed, occasionally punctuated by a series of whistles. “Dixie Flyer Blues,” performed less frequently, followed a similar trajectory. Train sounds and lyrics about trains had been common tropes in both black and white repertoires since the late 1800s.80 Country music's first million-selling record, “The Wreck of the Old 97” by Vernon Dalhart (1924), concerned a locomotive disaster. Jimmie Rodgers's “Singing Brakeman” persona of the 1920s and 1930s likewise attested to the popularity of train songs among white performers.81 Contemporaneous newspaper accounts suggest that most listeners focused on the believability of Bailey's train representations; racial coding and blues elements rarely registered. For some, his performances even lay beyond the ontological bounds of music. As one reviewer for the Knoxville News-Sentinel observed, “Bailey stands out as one of those who can make the instrument talk and trill. … Of course, the most difficult thing, which is more a stunt than music, is the locomotive trill.”82 In later interviews, Bailey himself emphasized the accuracy of his sonic imitations. The Pan-American and Dixie Flyer trains, he explained, had passed by his childhood home on the outskirts of Nashville, and he had spent hours memorizing their sounds and patterns, claiming that it had taken seventeen years to perfect the sound of the train whistle.83
Yet there can be no mistaking Bailey's trains for the real thing. The “whistle” portions of “Pan-American Blues” and “Dixie Flyer Blues” are melodic fragments that contrast sharply with the pulsating, mechanistic sounds that dominate most of the performance. Analysis of these moments in Bailey's train pieces indeed reveals several elements of the blues—pentatonicism, bent or blue notes, syncopation, and cyclic form. In “Pan-American Blues,” the whistle sounds periodically, alternating with more rhythmic sections evocative of the clickety-clack of the moving train. With a number of subtle variations, every whistle follows the basic idea shown in the transcription in example 1.84 Bailey plays with microtones around the third scale degree, yielding a series of unstable blue notes. Most of the whistle phrases end with a blues-derived ♭3–2–1 melodic lick that is decidedly unlike an actual train whistle. The whistles of “Dixie Flyer Blues” are more complex and varied, departing even further from onomatopoeic realism. The opening whistle begins with a salvo of eighth notes, each bending up toward the fifth scale degree (see example 2a). The end of the phrase works down toward the tonic by way of a syncopated, accented, flattened-third scale degree. The second whistle mimics this downward contour (see example 2b). Beginning again on a microtonally inflected fifth scale degree, Bailey works a flattened third and flattened seventh into the syncopated figure before arriving on the tonic. A dramatic octave leap extends the phrase, followed by a slurred grace note cluster that pauses momentarily on the flattened third before falling again to the tonic pitch. In each of these whistle passages, elements of the blues are consistently and unambiguously present.
These bluesy features reflected in part Bailey's idiosyncratic approach to harmonica playing. The vast majority of his repertoire was for solo harmonica, making him unique among Opry musicians in the 1920s. String band ensembles and vocal acts dominated the early Opry roster, even as the harmonica remained popular with both black and white musicians.85 Bailey participated in racially integrated harmonica contests prior to joining the Opry, and his white Opry castmates Humphrey Bate and Herman Crook were both harmonica players. However, Bate and Crook both performed in the context of a string band ensemble, in which the harmonica took over the melodic role of the fiddle rather than performing solo.86 Moreover, Bailey was the only one of the three to perform in the so-called “cross harp” style. In this style, first developed by African American musicians, the performer plays a fourth below a diatonic harmonica's intended key.87 This technique—playing in the key of G on a C harmonica, for example—yields a roughly Mixolydian modality, mimicking a blues scale with its lowered seventh scale degree. Through overblowing and other manipulations, Bailey was able to bend pitches to include the entire chromatic scale as well as the microtonal inflections that are a trademark of much blues singing. Comparative listening reveals his style and technique to be quite distinct from that of Bate and Crook.
Despite his unique approach to playing the harmonica, Bailey was not alone among Opry performers in drawing upon elements of the blues. Dozens of country musicians did so during the 1920s and 1930s. Several white country performers learned blues styles directly from African American antecedents or mentors, and some of their biographers would later highlight this lineage in order to allay contemporary concerns over blues authenticity and white appropriation of black styles.88 Other performers came by blues techniques through early careers in vaudeville or medicine show circuits, where minstrelsy remained prevalent well into the twentieth century. Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills were a part of this trend. Rodgers's signature “blue yodel” vocal technique, with its plaintive sound based on microtonal inflection, echoed the bent pitches of Bailey's harmonica solos as well as the sound of many black blues singers.89 Among the earliest Opry performers, Uncle Dave Macon (active from 1925), Sam and Kirk McGee (from 1927 and 1929 respectively), and especially the Delmore Brothers (from 1933) were all popular for their blues-oriented singing and picking styles.90 Anecdotally, some radio listeners imagined Macon himself to be black on the basis of his blues performances, and Bailey, who often toured with Macon and the Delmores, acknowledged in an interview that “they knew about the blues.”91 Acuff, who joined the Opry cast in 1938 after a stint in a blackface medicine show, regularly programmed and recorded blues with his ensembles.92 In his landmark study Bluegrass Breakdown, Robert Cantwell has suggested that Bill Monroe's development of bluegrass on the Opry in the 1930s and 1940s was heavily influenced by his knowledge of black and blackface idioms.93 Bailey's blues numbers were in good company on the Opry.
His posthumous advocates claimed that, through the blues, Bailey had brought greater stylistic diversity to the Opry and to country music. While Bailey is often held up today as exemplary of country's multiracialism, it is unclear whether Opry audiences would have heard his blues performances as explicitly racialized, especially given the prevalence of white blues performers. Interviews with Bailey and his fellow Opry members point only to racial ambiguity. Bailey confirmed in multiple interviews with David Morton that radio audiences were unaware of his race. Many listeners, he claimed, were surprised to learn that he was black, which became apparent only during Opry tours in the 1930s.94 In an interview of 1973, fellow Opry members Roy Acuff and Beecher Kirby corroborated Bailey's assertions, explaining that, when they toured together, “a lot of people, back then, they didn't know he was colored.”95 But Bill Monroe remembered things differently: “The people loved him. When we toured together, people even in rural areas knew that he was black, but it didn't matter to them.”96 Monroe did not join the Opry until 1939 and would not have toured with Bailey until that time. Most likely, Bailey's racial identity remained relatively unknown to listeners during his earliest broadcasts, knowledge of his race becoming more widespread only in the late 1930s as a result of live appearances.
Moments of racial reveal could be fraught on tours throughout the segregated South. In one interview, Bailey recalled a tour stop in which he initially faced resistance from a white audience because of his race, but then gained their acceptance after an impressive performance. According to Bailey, “They [were] talking a few things against me, 'cause I was black.” But later, “When I got through on the stage, they all come up and shook my hand and said, ‘Now, you come back here any day you want to. You're welcome back here.’” He also recalled hearing some in the audience saying, “He's a black man, but he has a white heart.”97 Bailey's association with country music, his generally deferential attitude toward white coworkers and audiences, and probably also his short stature helped him to avoid hostilities faced by many other black men in the South at that time.98 His recollection of his audience perceiving that he had a “white heart” also complicates posthumous arguments regarding the supposed racial authenticity of his repertoire and his resistance to Jim Crow—the very ones that helped to propel him into the Hall of Fame.
Whatever historical audiences may have thought of Bailey's race or its relevance to his music, the recording and radio industries of the time encouraged audiences to hear country performers and performances as white. Bailey's music was no exception. As Karl Hagstrom Miller has argued, the 1920s and 1930s saw the formation of segregated “race” and “hillbilly” genres, engineered by the popular music industry in order to allow maximum profits through efficient marketing to target demographics.99 Working within commercial country, Bailey unsettled such binary classification schemes. It would probably be impossible to compile an exhaustive list of his Opry repertoire, and only one broadcast recording survives.100 But his commercial recordings from 1927 and 1928 provide insight into his musical style during his time on the Opry. A survey of these eleven recordings, listed in table 1, suggests a strong emphasis on the blues, with some pieces newly composed and others rearranged from folk or popular sources, sometimes bearing new titles.101
|Title .||Label information .|
|Pan-American Blues||Brunswick 146, Vocalion 5180|
|Dixie Flyer Blues||Brunswick 146, Vocalion 5180|
|Muscle Shoals Blues||Brunswick 147, Brunswick 434|
|Up Country Blues||Brunswick 147, Brunswick 434|
|Evening Prayer Blues||Brunswick 148, Vocalion 5147|
|The Alcoholic Blues||Brunswick 148, Vocalion 5147|
|Old Hen Cackle||Vocalion 5190|
|Fox Chase||Vocalion 5190|
|John Henry||Victor 23336, Victor 23831|
|Ice Water Blues||Victor V-38014, Bluebird B5447, Sunrise 3228, Mont. Ward M-4910|
|Davidson County Blues||Victor V-38014, Bluebird B5447, Sunrise 3228, Mont. Ward M-4190|
|Title .||Label information .|
|Pan-American Blues||Brunswick 146, Vocalion 5180|
|Dixie Flyer Blues||Brunswick 146, Vocalion 5180|
|Muscle Shoals Blues||Brunswick 147, Brunswick 434|
|Up Country Blues||Brunswick 147, Brunswick 434|
|Evening Prayer Blues||Brunswick 148, Vocalion 5147|
|The Alcoholic Blues||Brunswick 148, Vocalion 5147|
|Old Hen Cackle||Vocalion 5190|
|Fox Chase||Vocalion 5190|
|John Henry||Victor 23336, Victor 23831|
|Ice Water Blues||Victor V-38014, Bluebird B5447, Sunrise 3228, Mont. Ward M-4910|
|Davidson County Blues||Victor V-38014, Bluebird B5447, Sunrise 3228, Mont. Ward M-4190|
As shown in table 1, many vernacular recordings during this period were assigned catalog numbers indicating either a “race” or “hillbilly” record.102 While these classifications almost always corresponded to the performer's race, Bailey was an exception to the industry-enforced musical color line. His recordings for Brunswick were released on the label's “Dixie” series (catalog numbers 100–601), featuring mostly white Southern musicians, rather than its “Race” series (7000–7228). This was also true of the Vocalion imprint: Bailey's recordings were released under “Old Southern Tunes” (5000–5484) rather than “Race” (1000–1681).103 For Victor, his recordings were released under its generic 23000 series as well as its V-38000 (“Hot Dance”) series. This classification meant that he was excluded from both the V-38500 (“Race”) series as well as the V-40000 (“Old Familiar Tunes and Novelties”) series; most other acts to record during the 1928 Victor sessions in Nashville, including Bailey's white costars from the Opry, were released on this V-40000 series.104 As his discography demonstrates, Bailey's material seemed to defy easy categorization. He consistently avoided the “race” label in the 1920s, however, despite both his own racial identity and the blues elements in his repertoire.
Radio also tended to avoid mentioning Bailey's race in order to present Opry audiences with a nostalgic image of rustic, white folk authenticity. While station WSM was host to a variety of programs, genres, and musicians of color, the Opry played up its working-class whiteness from its earliest days, both on the air and in other publicity. The use of blackface performers and conventions on the Opry served to reinforce the cultural boundaries of race and effectively made the rest of the Opry's offerings appear white in contrast. Eschewing blackface caricatures, Bailey was lumped together with white musicians and their ostensibly “white” music. Yet as the Opry increasingly embraced the hillbilly image in the 1930s—an image that Bailey actively resisted—Bailey and his music emerged as idiosyncratic outliers. He began to receive less and less airtime, finding himself passed over in favor of newer acts that explicitly foregrounded whiteness.
It is unclear to what extent WSM and the Opry deliberately attempted to conceal Bailey's race from radio audiences in on-air announcements and promotional materials. Jud Collins, an Opry announcer during the last year of Bailey's tenure, argued that there would have been no reason to publicize his race. In Collins's view, this was not because a black performer would have been controversial, but because on-air mention of any performer's race would have been inappropriate. As he explained during an interview with David Morton in 1973, “We would call them ‘the Negroes’ then. And nobody would ever have said ‘Here's our Negro Opry star.’ No, there's no reason to know that, and no reason to say it, and I'm sure nobody ever did.”105 But Bailey himself recalled that, rather than being merely indifferent, Opry management was wary of mentioning race on the air for fear of reprisals against on-air racial integration. According to Bailey, Opry impresario and emcee George D. “Judge” Hay was worried that “they'd blow us out” if Bailey's race was ever discovered.106 A decision to conceal his race had been made when he performed on Nashville's WDAD in late 1925, presumably for the same fear of public backlash.107 This concern seems to have been particular to white-identified programming, however. Host to a wide variety of radio shows during the week, WSM often featured black ensembles like the local Fisk Jubilee Singers on its other programs.108 Any efforts to avoid disclosing Bailey's race thus seem to have stemmed from local opposition not toward performers of color per se but toward integrating individual shows. As in most other public spaces, Southern radio tended to uphold the bewildering logic of Jim Crow.109
In seeking to abide by such community standards, WSM management imagined its audience to consist primarily if not exclusively of middle-class whites. National Life and Accident Insurance, a leading Nashville business, had founded WSM in 1925 with this target audience in mind. Early programming favored middlebrow fare such as light classics and dance bands, rigorously avoiding the so-called “hillbilly” music supposedly favored by working-class white listeners.110 Seeking to project an aura of respectability, WSM hired George Hay from WLS in Chicago to replicate his success in attracting upscale listenership and sponsors. Hay's work with the Opry began as a pet project and was resisted by many WSM personnel and elite Nashvillians, who came to tolerate the program only after it became financially successful. At the same time, WSM partnered with community organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, regularly memorializing Confederate leaders during broadcasts in an ostensible effort to celebrate local Southern heritage.111 While billing itself as a historical society, the United Daughters of the Confederacy tacitly supported the cause of white supremacy in its public advocacy campaigns.112 If WSM's commercial success relied in part upon the support of such community groups, then there may have been a real risk in advertising Bailey's race; especially for a show that traded in notions of white European origins, any evidence of interracial music making could have provoked an outcry. Hay's worry about being “blown out” may have been well founded.
While attentive to such concerns, the Opry likely had a more racially and socioeconomically diverse listenership than WSM management imagined or intended. Demographic data on WSM audiences in the 1920s and 1930s is scarce, but WSM boasted a powerful broadcast signal that covered most of Tennessee.113 The Opry was granted clear-channel status in 1931, providing exclusive regional rights to its 650 kHz broadcasting frequency. Once the Opry began syndication over the NBC network in late 1939, the show attracted a truly national audience.114 In a press release of 1958, the Opry imagined these early audiences as “not only the folk who usually attend rural barn dances but also many of those who had come to the city during the great urban migration of the industrial era. These folk retain their contact with the soil by tuning to the program which brings them the songs they have always known and loved.”115 The Opry audience in this case was defined as much along class and regional lines as along racial ones. Anecdotal evidence suggests a fairly pervasive Southern black audience for Opry broadcasts during the 1930s and 1940s. Mid-century black musicians such as Ray Charles have attested to the formative influence of weekly Opry broadcasts upon their own musical sensibilities.116 Studio audiences for Opry performances, however, were largely white. Bailey remembered one broadcast in which George Hay mentioned that “colored people could come” to the Opry studio to see the show, in an apparent effort to help cultivate black audiences.117 This gesture, however, proved mostly futile. During Bailey's time, few black listeners attended the Opry. This is affirmed by the fact that no section was cordoned off for black audiences, which would have been required during segregation.118 At the Ryman Auditorium shortly after World War II, once Bailey had left the show, Jud Collins recalled that a designated section for black audience members had been added, but that there were rarely more than “four or five” in attendance.119 Despite overtures to black audiences and some evidence to the contrary, the imagined audience for the Opry remained predominantly white, and Bailey said little to challenge this idea in later interviews.
Obscuring Bailey's race was necessary to appease white, segregationist audiences, but also to maintain the rural white self-image that the Opry sought to cultivate. This idealized image was influenced by the work of academic folklorists like Francis James Child, Cecil Sharp, and John Lomax in the early twentieth century. These folklorists sought to discover the roots of American folk music and insisted upon finding racially pure song archetypes. This led them to exclude from their research the traces of interracial musical exchange they encountered throughout the rural South. Instead, they entered the field with European origins as a foregone conclusion, and songs with demonstrable links back to white Europe were the ones that were ultimately preserved, published, and valorized.120 Launched a few decades after these folkloric studies were published, the Opry drew upon and played into a similar Anglo- and Eurocentric view of the origins of Southern music. An early WSM press release made this link explicitly: “It was music people recognized; the lyrics were simple; the melodies were easy to sing or hum; and the songs told a story, as had the folk music passed down for centuries in England, Scotland, Ireland, and certain parts of Europe.” Elsewhere, the press release explained that “for many years the music of the Anglo-Saxon people who settled in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee was passed on through the families, and with each generation some new music was added. This became the folk music of America.”121 Such mythologizing continued in the Opry's promotional literature at least into the 1960s.122
The Opry's blackface performances added another layer of complexity to the racial signification of its broadcasts.123 The most popular minstrelsy act on the 1930s Opry was that of Lasses and Honey. Consisting of white blackface comics Lasses White and Honey Wilds, the duo joined the Opry cast in 1932. It was especially popular on WSM tours, during which it “had 'em hangin' on the rafters,” in George Hay's estimation, relying upon a combination of comedy routines and popular songs.124 Both stage and radio shows were performed in ersatz black dialect, to the extent that Wilds developed a “deep voice trained to dialect so well that he lets it run over into his private life.”125 Lasses White soon left the Opry to pursue work in film, and was replaced first by Tom Woods and later by Bunny Biggs, both of whom worked under the minstrel name “Jamup.”126 In addition to the Opry, the duo also appeared on WSM's Cotton Blossom Minstrels, a weekly program offering blackface routines.127 Bailey recalled that Honey Wilds blacked his face even for radio performances, while Lasses White did not.128 Other Opry acts occasionally included blackface comedians and routines in their performances, and Opry broadcasts of the 1930s were regularly interrupted for ten minutes to allow airtime for the Amos 'n' Andy program, broadcast over the NBC network.129 That Roy Acuff once performed in blackface is well known, although he did not perform such material at the Opry.130 Bailey himself never participated in blackface performances. Although deeply offensive today, blackface was a normalized part of the entertainment industry during Bailey's era. In later interviews, Bailey avoided making disparaging remarks toward blackface performers and even recalled fondly his relationship with Honey Wilds, who helped to secure accommodation for him during tours of the segregated South.131
Blackface routines presented Opry listeners with a familiar, nostalgic image of musical blackness rooted in toxic stereotypes and nineteenth-century repertoires. As several scholars have noted, the minstrel show left an indelible impact upon the conventions of radio barn dance programs like the Opry. Beyond shared repertoire, style, instrumentation (such as the banjo), and performer background, the stage patter and class-based hillbilly stereotypes embraced by the Opry in the 1930s drew heavily upon the minstrel tradition.132 Whether audiences would have heard the performances by Jamup and Honey or other Opry minstrels as representative of “authentic” black music or simply a throwback to an earlier white genre is debatable. But by invoking black stereotypes, such routines contrasted markedly with the rural white image projected by other Opry performers and publicity. Juxtaposed with blackface performances, Bailey's blues-based repertoire may have registered differently with radio audiences of the 1930s from the way it registers today. At the very least, blues performances were not programmed on the Opry as explicitly black music.
While most Opry performers developed their own material and cultivated distinct stage and vocal personas in order to connect with listeners, Bailey's voice remained largely silent. It is unclear whether this was demanded by Opry management or simply Bailey's personal preference. At any rate, he avoided speaking between pieces beyond offering an occasional “thank you” to the audience.133 To the extent that voices are racialized, the absence of Bailey's voice, in conspicuous contrast to most white Opry performers, further obscured his racial identity and correlated to his comparative lack of agency.134 Typically, George Hay introduced Bailey to radio audiences, often deploying demeaning and possibly racially coded language. By the end of his Opry tenure, Bailey had gained a reputation as the Opry's “mascot.” A surviving recording of the first NBC-syndicated Opry radio broadcast on October 14, 1939, gives a sense of the way this label was used. Hay summoned Bailey to the stage by saying, “Now, friends, we introduce our little mascot, DeFord Bailey,” after which Bailey performed “Pan-American Blues” without a word. Later, Hay called Bailey back on stage to play “Fox Chase”: “Come on out here, little DeFord, wake up, son.”135 The “little” and “mascot” labels, intended to render Bailey's short stature amusing, could also be heard as a way of dismissing or marginalizing his race as unthreatening. This language positioned him as a beloved but lesser member of the Opry cast. Such words might soothe any listener protests about racial integration of the airwaves, at least for listeners who already knew that Bailey was black. But for others, the use of the “mascot” label might render his race unclear, obliquely but not overtly acknowledged. Thus Opry management could have it both ways. Most importantly, treating Bailey as a novelty or curiosity meant that audiences could hear his music as consistent with, rather than contrary or threatening to, the Opry's otherwise white-performed and largely white-coded programming.
In publicity throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Opry management was similarly circumspect with regard to Bailey's race—a pattern that did not apply to all Opry performers. In newspaper announcements, the most ubiquitous advertisements for upcoming radio programming, Bailey was listed simply as “the harmonica wizard,” a nickname bestowed upon him by Hay.136 By the mid-1930s, when Bailey began touring, publicity would sometimes reference race in passing or use coded language, echoing his on-air designation as the Opry's “mascot.” One press release from this period refers to him as “the little colored boy”;137 another from around 1940 uses the condescending diminutive “little DeFord Bailey.”138 As Bailey's race became widely known through Opry tours, these nicknames and announcements worked to assure white audiences invested in the hierarchies of Jim Crow that Bailey presented no threat to the established racial order.
Publicity photographs of the Opry cast during the 1930s and 1940s, usually distributed to potential advertisers or included in souvenir programs, gave the impression of an all-white membership; spotting Bailey requires a deliberate effort (see figure 2).139 As attested by these photos, Bailey resisted Hay's efforts to cultivate a hillbilly image. While many white musicians dressed as farmers or cowboys, Bailey maintained his reputation as a dapper dresser, appearing in a tailored suit. Suit and tie were standard for the earliest Opry performers during broadcasts and in publicity photos, as the shows were radio-only and performers sought to project a professional image. Only when the Opry became a stage show with a studio audience in the 1930s did Hay try to enforce a hillbilly dress code.140 But Bailey never made the switch. “Me and overalls can't get along no kind of way,” he told Morton in an interview. “I wore them two times, then I went back to my coat and tie.”141 Bailey's rejection of the hillbilly costumes may have been a matter of personal preference, a desire to maintain a more respectable image, or even a kind of infrapolitics directed against Opry management, his quiet protest against the racial condescension he faced.142 Nevertheless, his presence ultimately did little to undermine the Opry's projection of a white, working-class identity. Exploiting savvy marketing and radio's power to conceal, the Opry could position Bailey and his music as compatible with and unthreatening to that same white image. Contrary to Hall of Fame advocates who regarded Bailey's style and racial identity as closely correlated, the Opry of the 1920s and 1930s depended upon their separability and malleability.
DeFord Bailey's foundational role in the development of commercial country music is undeniable. He participated in Nashville's first commercial recording sessions. He was a cornerstone of the early Grand Ole Opry program roster, helping to popularize one of country music's most revered institutions. And his performances were thrilling, full of invention and impeccable musicianship. For these reasons, he is justly canonized in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Yet his long path to induction was, at nearly every step, attended by fraught conversations about race. Today, Bailey's biography and music are made to serve industry-driven narratives of country music's multiracial history, which sometimes draw upon ahistorical and racially essentialist attitudes that stand in stark contrast to the way earlier audiences understood his role on the Opry. Rather than simply confirming country's multiracial performance history, Bailey's career paradoxically reveals how powerfully commercial forces conspired to racialize the genre as white, despite its integrated workforce and diverse repertoires. The multiracial narrative celebrated in the Hall of Fame rests on the achievements of a select few musicians of color as well as the ostensible blackness of certain stylistic elements of the genre—the blues, banjo, fiddle, and so on. Yet as Bailey's case makes clear, it was entirely possible for a Southern black musician to perform the blues on African-derived instruments and still produce white music, at least according to industry logic. Neither performer biography nor stylistic evidence is therefore sufficient to rewrite the history of a racially coded genre, or to redeem its racially troubled past. It is crucial to attend to the music's commercial and social framing. However earnestly progressive individuals and organizations might seek to diversify racially fraught repertoires and their canons, whether country music or any other genre, such projects must reckon with reception histories that yield different interpretations. Otherwise, advocates risk reinscribing a musical color line that in the long run may actually impede the crucial work of antiracism.
Contemporary narratives about commercial country music's multiracial history should therefore give us pause, especially when promoted by the industry itself. At worst, Bailey's Hall of Fame induction could signal a new stage in the exploitation of black musicians, as a mostly white industry co-opts the language of multiculturalism in response to shifting notions of middle-class respectability and cultural legitimacy. To be sure, industry trends since 2005 provide a modest but meaningful rebuttal to this critique. Following Bailey's induction, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has featured a handful of special exhibits and updated its main exhibit to highlight black performers, and industry research shows a substantial increase in nonwhite listenership for country music in the past decade.143 The 2000s and 2010s have seen more performers of color in commercial country than ever before, although several fall within the crossover genre of “country rap,” and even then they are few in number.144 The debate over Bailey's Hall of Fame candidacy perhaps helped to motivate these changes. Even so, Bailey continues to shoulder a heavy burden in terms of desegregating the Hall of Fame, his own undeniable artistry sometimes serving as a footnote to his story. Inducting other performers of color into the Hall would help to address this issue, celebrating a wider diversity of individuals and styles rather than merely recognizing token representatives of a race. The CMA might furthermore publicize its list of Hall of Fame electors, as other canon-making institutions have done. Removing anonymity would promote individual accountability and, more importantly, illuminate just who is empowered to shape the official canon. In turn, such a move might create a greater incentive for the CMA to diversify the electors and the industry at large.145 While hardly a cure-all, these actions would demonstrate a more sustained and consequential commitment to the multiracial politics that Bailey's advocates have championed. Without them, country music's multiracial canon will merely safeguard the genre's whiteness for a new age, condemning Bailey to remain its unwitting and unwilling accomplice.
My thanks to all those who supported the research and writing of this article. Funding was provided in part by the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, and the Richard F. French Fellowship. Portions of the research were presented at the 2015 meeting of the Society for American Music and the 2018 Junior Faculty Symposium hosted by the American Musicological Society's Popular Music Study Group. I am also grateful to colleagues in the Harvard Music Department and to the anonymous readers of this Journal for their insightful feedback on article drafts. Finally, my thanks to Dan Tramte for his assistance in setting the music examples.
The material presented in this paragraph is based on my visit to the museum on June 8, 2019.
These include an exhibit on the black rhythm and blues scene in Nashville, which ran from March 27, 2004, to December 31, 2005, and an exhibit on Ray Charles's relationship to country music, which ran from March 10, 2006, to December 31, 2007. Details for the exhibits can be found on the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum website: “Night Train to Nashville: Music City Rhythm & Blues,” accessed June 28, 2018, https://countrymusichalloffame.org/exhibits/exhibitdetail/night-train-to-nashville-music-city-rhythm-blues#.WykmlY2WzIU; and “I Can't Stop Loving You: Ray Charles and Country Music,” accessed June 28, 2018, https://countrymusichalloffame.org/exhibits/exhibitdetail/i-cant-stop-loving-you-ray-charles-and-country-music#.WykmiY2WzIU. More extensive discussion of these exhibits appears in Pecknold, Selling Sound, 241–42.
On “white man's blues” as a formulation for country music, see Grissim, Country Music, and Thomas, “There's a Whole Lot o' Color.” For other critical perspectives on country's working-class whiteness, see Fox, Real Country; Hemphill, Nashville Sound, 113–68; Malone, Don't Get Above Your Raisin'; Mann, “Why Does Country Music Sound White?”; and Tosches, Country.
The African American presence in country music has interested scholars since the 1968 publication of Bill C. Malone's Country Music U.S.A., the first academic treatment of country music and still regarded as the standard history of the genre. Other important scholarship on race and country music includes Brackett, Categorizing Sound; Foster, My Country and My Country, Too; Miller, Segregating Sound; Pecknold, Hidden in the Mix; and Russell, Blacks, Whites, and Blues. The CD box set compilation From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music provides a helpful survey of black country musicians from the 1920s through the 1990s.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum are distinct entities. The Country Music Hall of Fame is an annual award overseen by the Country Music Association, an industry trade group that has administered the election of Hall of Fame inductees since 1961. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, established in 1967, is a museum dedicated to the preservation and public presentation of country music history. The museum includes a Hall of Fame Rotunda, which houses an honorary plaque for each Hall of Fame inductee, but the museum is not subject to the same level of oversight by the Country Music Association. I explore this intertwined institutional history in more detail later in the article.
Two other recent examples are the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on September 24, 2016, and the National Museum of African American Music, set to open in 2020 in Nashville, just minutes away from the Country Music Hall of Fame. See “About the Museum,” National Museum of African American History and Culture website, accessed July 14, 2019, https://nmaahc.si.edu/about/museum; and “History,” National Museum of African American Music website, accessed July 14, 2019, https://nmaam.org/history/. My thanks to one of the Journal's anonymous readers for alerting me to the opening of the latter.
The Opry program was originally titled The WSM Barn Dance. The name was changed in late 1927; see Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot, 21–22. Except for a brief stint at radio station WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, from November 1928 to February 1929, Bailey performed on the Opry almost every Saturday night. A complete listing of his Opry performances through 1939 can be found in Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot, 269–70. On Bailey's time at WNOX, see Morton, DeFord Bailey, 85–87. He was lured to WNOX by a nightly fee of twenty dollars, much higher than his usual earnings of seven dollars at WSM. Using WNOX as leverage, he successfully negotiated for a twenty-dollar fee when he returned to WSM in February 1929.
The three recording sessions were for Columbia in Atlanta (April 1, 1927), Brunswick-Balke-Collender in New York (April 15–16, 1927), and Victor in Nashville (October 2, 1928). In addition to the eleven commercially available recordings, seven sides were unissued. See Charles Wolfe's discography in Morton, DeFord Bailey, 185–86. I discuss specific repertoire later in the article.
Pride was inducted into the Hall in 2000. Unlike Bailey, Pride sold millions of records and remains in regular rotation on classic country radio. Pride's status as an African American country musician has been the subject of much discussion by journalists and historians; see Hughes, Country Soul, 128–51, and Pride's autobiography, Pride.
See Peter Cooper, “Bailey, Campbell and Alabama Bound for Hall of Fame,” The Tennessean, August 29, 2005 (David C. Morton DeFord Bailey Collection (hereafter DBC), box 3, folder 6).
Quoted in Rick Petreycik, “The Harmonica Wizard,” American Legacy 13, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 21 (DBC, box 2).
The sociologist Richard A. Peterson has written extensively about multiculturalism and diversity as middle-class consumer values; see especially Peterson and Kern, “Changing Highbrow Taste.”
The “Nashville Sound” of the 1950s and 1960s replaced country's prewar fiddles and vocal twang with orchestral arrangements and crooning by the likes of Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves. Unlike the repertoire of earlier periods, in which musicians were seen as the primary creative force, this style was pioneered by recording studio producers like Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley. See Jensen, Nashville Sound.
See Pecknold, Selling Sound, ch. 5.
For its first six years, the Hall of Fame had no dedicated physical space in which to celebrate inductees, who were recognized in an invitation-only ceremony. Plaques honoring these inductees were housed for a time at the War Memorial Building as part of the Tennessee State Museum. See ibid., 181, 195–98.
See ibid., 189.
See ibid., 238–40. Attendance for 2018 was 1,207,901 visitors, with an estimated economic impact of $76 million for the city of Nashville: “Annual Report 2018,” accessed July 9, 2019, from “About Us,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum website, https://countrymusichalloffame.org/about/, 10–11.
Diane Pecknold has argued that, since the 1970s, the CMF has increasingly viewed its primary mission as one of public education rather than supporting scholarship, even as the museum's archives continue to welcome scholars. The opening of the new museum was a decisive turning point. As Pecknold observes, “the  expansion of the museum also allowed for the first concerted effort to present a cohesive historical narrative of country music in the exhibit ‘Sing Me Back Home,’ developed collaboratively by the Foundation's museum, education, research, and curatorial staffs”: Pecknold, “Country Music Association,” 74.
See “FAQ,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum website, accessed June 19, 2018, https://countrymusichalloffame.org/visit/faq#.WykiFI2WzIU.
Gwendolyn C. Young, “Family, Others Still Fighting to Get Opry Pioneer into Hall of Fame,” The Tennessean, December 5, 2002 (DBC, box 3, folder 5).
See Dwight Lewis, “Country Music Changes Its Tune on DeFord Bailey,” The Tennessean, September 1, 2005 (DBC, box 3, folder 6). The “Old Timers” category was officially called “Career Achieved National Prominence Prior to World War II”; see Sarah Skates, “New Procedures for Election to the Country Music Hall of Fame,” MusicRow, February 25, 2009, https://musicrow.com/2009/02/new-procedures-for-election-to-the-country-music-hall-of-fame/.
Cooper, “Bailey, Campbell and Alabama.”
Quoted in Cooper, “Bailey, Campbell and Alabama.”
The CMA modified its induction categories again in 2009, motivated by a similar logic. Nominees are now elected as part of the “Modern Era” (twenty-five years of eligibility beginning “20 years after they first achieve national prominence”) or the “Veterans Era” (eligibility beginning “45 years after they first achieve national prominence”), or under three rotating categories of “Non-Performer,” “Songwriter,” and “Recording and/or Touring Musician.” The rotating categories are industry-focused, honoring behind-the-scenes figures whose contributions may appear less compelling to average Hall of Fame tourists. The “Modern Era” and “Veterans Era” categories, however, map onto the previous designations of “since 1975” and “Old Timers.” Expanding the category of legacy performers beyond World War II allows the industry greater freedom to shape the canon as needed, while the rhetorical shift from “Old Timers” to “Veterans” indicates an intention to move toward a more professional, less derogatory image. See Skates, “New Procedures for Election.”
Currently, a committee of electors selects twenty nominees for each induction category. Nominees may be proposed by electors, other CMA members, or fans through petition to the executive director of the CMA, although there is no guarantee that a specific proposal will make it onto the list of twenty. The CMF distributes a short biography of each of the nominees to the electors. A first-round ballot narrows the list of nominees in each category to five, and a second-round ballot determines the inductees. The ballots are never made public, and thus it is impossible to trace the voting history for Bailey beyond anecdotal evidence and information that can be gleaned from press reports. My thanks to Don Cusic, a current CMA member, for clarifying the finer details of the Hall of Fame election process (e-mail to the author, July 30, 2019).
Bailey's complete 1927–28 commercial recordings were reissued on the 1985 LP Harmonica Showcase and the 1993 CD compilation Harp Blowers (1925–1936). One of the most prominent public memorials for Bailey was a gravestone bearing his “Harmonica Wizard” sobriquet, placed in Nashville's Greenwood Cemetery in 1983 through the efforts of friends and family. A dedication ceremony on June 24, 1983, included remarks and performances by Opry members Roy Acuff, the Crook Brothers, and Bill Monroe, as well as a presentation by Nashville mayor Richard Fulton; see Robert K. Oermann, “Country Music Commemorates Deford [sic] Bailey,” The Tennessean, June 24, 1983 (scanned image, Bailey vertical files, Frist Library and Archive of the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum (hereafter FLA)). For a more detailed account of Bailey's rediscovery, see Parler, “Musical Racialism and Racial Nationalism,” 90–94. (Some sources misspell Bailey's first name as “Deford” rather than “DeFord.” I have silently corrected such errors throughout the remainder of the article.)
The earliest call for Bailey's induction that I have found appeared in an article of 1974 by Frye Gaillard, which speculated on why Bailey and other Opry “old-timers” had yet to be inducted: Frye Gaillard, “Sour Notes at the Grand Ole Opry,” Southern Voices, May–June 1974 (DBC, box 2).
“The Legendary DeFord Bailey and His Unforgettable Country Blues,” paper presented at the NAHRO National Conference, October 17–20, 1999, audiocassette, DBC, box 7. A list of interviews appears in the finding aid for the David C. Morton DeFord Bailey Collection at the Nashville Public Library.
Morton's first, locally published piece on Bailey was David C. Morton, “Every Day's Been Sunday,” Nashville!, March 1974, 50–55 (DBC, box 2). Other early profiles included Gaillard, Watermelon Wine, ch. 6; Guralnick, Lost Highway, 49–56; and Hemphill, Nashville Sound, 161–68. Later profiles of Bailey appear in Foster, My Country, and Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot.
The history of the early Opry is recounted in Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot.
Quoted in Reginald Stuart, “Death of Black Opry Pioneer Leads to Disharmony in Nashville,” New York Times, August 22, 1982 (DBC, box 3, folder 5).
On the 1928 recording sessions, see “Nashville Musician DeFord Bailey Dies,” Chicago Sun Times, July 4, 1982 (scanned image, Bailey vertical files, FLA). On the Opry broadcast, see “DeFord Bailey, True Opry Pioneer,” Nashville Banner, July 7, 1982 (Bailey vertical files, FLA), and H. Michael Henderson, “DeFord Bailey: ‘The Black Hillbilly,’” Goldmine, March 16, 1984 (Bailey vertical files, FLA). The story of Bailey's historic broadcast is also recounted in Hay, Story of the Grand Ole Opry, 17–19 (Grand Ole Opry Collection, 1930s–1960s (hereafter GOOC), box 4, folder 8).
Walter Carter and Randy Hilman, in The Tennessean, July 3, 1982 (Bailey vertical files, FLA).
“DeFord Bailey, True Opry Pioneer.” The Clodhoppers and Paul Warmack and His Gully Jumpers recorded on Friday, September 28, 1928; Bailey recorded the following Tuesday, October 2; see Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot, 175–76.
When Bailey made an appearance at the Opry in the late 1970s, most audience members had never heard of him; see “DeFord Bailey Comes Home to the Opry,” The Tennessean, no date (Bailey vertical files, FLA). Lack of name recognition among Hall of Fame electors was later cited as a barrier to Bailey's induction; see Young, “Family, Others Still Fighting,” and Rafer Guzmán, “DeFord Bailey's Time Has (Finally) Come,” Newsday.com, 2005 (printout, 3 pp., DBC, box 3, folder 3).
Gaillard, “Sour Notes.”
Quoted in Stuart, “Death of Black Opry Pioneer.”
Quoted in Ken Beck, “Remembering a Wizard: ‘A Legend Lost’ Recalls DeFord Bailey's Contributions to ‘Grand Ole Opry,’” The Tennessean, May 7, 2002 (DBC, box 3, folder 5) (ellipsis in source).
Earl Calloway, “Black Opry Pioneer Refused Entry into Country Hall of Fame,” Chicago Defender, September 11, 1982 (Bailey vertical files, FLA).
Quoted in Stuart, “Death of Black Opry Pioneer.”
Quoted in Young, “Family, Others Still Fighting” (ellipsis in source).
Quoted in Beck, “Remembering a Wizard.”
Quoted in Carter and Hilman, “Death Claims DeFord Bailey at 82.”
The Delmore Brothers and Honey Wilds were among the other white Opry performers who helped Bailey to secure accommodation on tours; see Morton, DeFord Bailey, 116–18.
Quoted in K. Dawn Rutledge, “DeFord Bailey: The Grand Ole Opry's First Black Country Star,” Tennessee Tribune 5, no. 20 (May 31–June 6, 1995): 4–5 (DBC, box 2).
See, for example, C. R. Goodwin, “DeFord Bailey Earned Place in Hall of Fame” (letter to the editor), The Tennessean, July 11, 198[2?] (Bailey vertical files, FLA), and Calloway, “Black Opry Pioneer Refused Entry.”
See Stuart, “Death of Black Opry Pioneer.”
Tony Russell's Blacks, Whites, and Blues was one of the first studies to document this racial exchange, although he largely avoids economic issues. Karl Hagstrom Miller's Segregating Sound pushes back against the still popular notion that African American blues and white country music should be regarded as stylistically distinct, arguing that the considerable overlap in repertoire between so-called “race records” and “hillbilly” music reveals a substantial history of interracial musical exchange. Charles Hughes examines the “country-soul triangle” of racially integrated recording studios in Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, during the 1960s and 1970s. While these studios promoted a triumphalist narrative of racial progress, Hughes suggests that this masked a reality of white appropriation, economic exploitation, and subsequent black racial resentment that has long gone unacknowledged. See Hughes, Country Soul, 2.
On Rodgers, see Neal, Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, and Porterfield, Jimmie Rodgers. Charles R. Townsend stresses that Bob Wills “learned much of his music and style directly from blacks” (Townsend's emphasis) while growing up in Texas in the 1910s, unlike the many white musicians who learned mainly by listening to black records; this, he argues, made Wills's version of black styles more authentic: Townsend, San Antonio Rose, 4. Hank Williams's relationship with his mentor, the black street performer Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, has been the subject of much speculation and is discussed in Escott, Hank Williams, 10–11; Flippo, Your Cheatin' Heart, 21–23; and Hemphill, Lovesick Blues, 22–25.
Michael T. Bertrand's Race, Rock, and Elvis suggests that Presley's music and sometimes integrated concerts in the 1950s constituted racial progress, at least among black and white youth. This progress was only later obscured by charges of racial appropriation against Presley and other white rock musicians.
Quoted in Dwight Lewis, “DeFord Bailey: A Place Is Due Him in Hall of Fame,” The Tennessean, June 25, 2000 (DBC, box 3, folder 6).
Quoted in Guzmán, “DeFord Bailey's Time Has (Finally) Come.”
Quoted in Young, “Family, Others Still Fighting.”
For a discussion of country music politics during this era, see Rudder, “In Whose Name?,” and Willman, Rednecks and Bluenecks.
The Dixie Chicks controversy is the subject of the 2007 film documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck.
See Morton, DeFord Bailey, 93–104 (touring under segregation), 84–85 and 94 (compensation practices), 123–28 (Bailey's dismissal). For a more detailed history of the ASCAP boycott, see Ryan, Production of Culture, esp. ch. 5.
Quoted in Morton, DeFord Bailey, 124 (ellipsis in source).
Ibid., 142. Bailey references Elvis Presley specifically.
Dwight Lewis, “This Country Music Great Is Still in Need of Deserved Recognition,” The Tennessean, [ca. 2002] (Bailey vertical files, FLA).
Quoted in Daryl Sanders, “DeFord Bailey: The Legacy of the Grand Ole Opry's First Star Still Shines Brightly,” The Tennessean, February 10, 1995 (DBC, box 3, folder 5). Himons also honored Bailey in his 1987 composition “Mr. Bailey.”
Matt Hanks, “DeFord Bailey—Country Music's First Black Superstar,” No Depression, July–August 1998, 89 (photocopy, DBC, box 3, folder 6). Wolfe is quoted in Guzmán, “DeFord Bailey's Time Has (Finally) Come.”
For perspectives on Rosa Parks, see Barnes, Journey from Jim Crow, and Parks, Rosa Parks. On Robinson and civil rights activism in baseball, see Kirwin, Out of the Shadows, and Robinson, First Class Citizenship.
Manny Faria, “Followin' the Music: DeFord Bailey Was Big Little Man,” Danbury [CT?] News Times, July [15?], 1982 (Bailey vertical files, FLA).
Quotations in this paragraph are taken from Charles K. Wolfe, “DeFord Bailey,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum website, accessed November 6, 2019, https://countrymusichalloffame.org/Inductees/InducteeDetail/deford-bailey.
In the 1920s, Opry performers were typically paid very little, if at all; most early performers instead regarded their broadcasts as purely recreational or as advertising for local concerts, using the small sums paid by the Opry to supplement their income from other sources. Bailey did indeed draw higher compensation than most Opry performers in the late 1920s, beginning at $2 a night and rising to $7 a night by 1928 (equal to around $100 in 2019). When Opry listeners began to send Bailey money through fan mail, however, WSM management actively discouraged the practice and started screening his mail before forwarding it to him. When Bailey made $400 for his eight recordings with Brunswick in 1927, Opry manager George Hay skimmed off 25 percent as commission for having arranged the recording session. Hay then paid Bailey the remaining $300 in $10 installments, in lieu of his usual fee for Opry performances. Afterward, Bailey's nightly fee fell back to $7. In other words, Bailey received only $90 for his recording session with Brunswick. When he returned to WSM from WNOX-Knoxville in February 1929, his nightly fee was increased to $20. See Morton, DeFord Bailey, 84–87. For inflation figures, see “CPI Inflation Calculator,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed August 8, 2019, https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.
While a fuller theorization of “black music” is beyond the scope of this article, the label remains problematic. As several scholars have pointed out, the racialization of musical genres can perpetuate essentialist listening habits and dominant epistemologies. For example, as Tom Perchard has observed, it can encourage different analytical approaches according to repertoire; scholars are primed to highlight rhythmic practices in black music, while Western art music is often presented as a teleological story about ever-increasing harmonic sophistication: Perchard, “New Riffs.” As I suggest, some of Bailey's advocates fell into this kind of racialized thinking when discussing his style. Ronald Radano has argued that, rather than simply a set of musical practices intrinsic to African American musicians, “black music” is a discourse resulting from a historiography that has fetishized racial difference, effacing in the process performers like Bailey who fall outside of the usual genre labels for black musicians: Radano, Lying Up a Nation. At the same time, it is worth noting that the “black music” label has afforded the cultural space for musicians of color to be heard. Rewriting the history of jazz or blues in order to acknowledge a more complex racial history could inadvertently silence or marginalize those same musicians of color.
Quoted in Lewis, “This Country Music Great.”
Articles that use this label include Goodwin, “DeFord Bailey Earned Place”; Henderson, “DeFord Bailey: ‘The Black Hillbilly’”; and Linda T. Wynn, “DeFord Bailey,” Tennessee Conservationist, November–December 1992 (reprinted pamphlet, DBC, box 3, folder 6). The phrase is also used in Bailey's biography on the Hall of Fame website.
On Bailey's use of the term “black hillbilly,” see Morton, DeFord Bailey, 17. On “hillbilly” as a white-coded term in the 1920s and 1930s, see Brackett, Categorizing Sound, ch. 4, esp. 136–43.
Two excellent sources on this neglected repertoire are Huber, “Black Hillbillies,” and Wolfe, “Black String Bands.”
Wynn, “DeFord Bailey.” For scholarly studies of the banjo and its transatlantic history, see Carlin, Birth of the Banjo, and Epstein, “Folk Banjo.” On African and African American fiddle performance, see DjeDje, “(Mis)Representation of African American Music.”
Two important scholarly studies of the blues as a specifically African American form of expression are Floyd, Power of Black Music, and Murray, Stomping the Blues. Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. takes these two scholars as a theoretical starting point for a more thorough discussion of African American musical expression through hip-hop: Ramsey, Race Music, 19–22. For discussion of racial essentialism in jazz, see Gerard, Jazz in Black and White, esp. ch. 1, and Sandke, Where the Dark and the Light Folks Meet, 2–9.
DeFord Bailey, interview with David C. Morton, October 17, 1976, audiocassette, DBC, box 5, FS-7592.
Quoted in Faria, “Followin' the Music.”
Warren Hart and Keith A. Gordon, “DeFord Bailey: The First Star of the Grand Ole Opry,” Metro Music Magazine, February 1993, 11 (DBC, box 2).
On trains as a motif in black music, see Floyd, “Troping the Blues,” and Cohen, Long Steel Rail.
On Dalhart, see “Vernon Dalhart,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum website, accessed January 14, 2019, https://countrymusichalloffame.org/Inductees/InducteeDetail/vernon-dalhart. For studies of Rodgers's career, see note 49 above.
Quoted in Morton, DeFord Bailey, 85.
DeFord Bailey, telephone interview with David C. Morton, January 1980, audiocassette, DBC, box 6, FS-7611.
The music examples in this article are transcribed from the CD Harp Blowers (1925–1936).
String bands usually consisted of a fiddle, which served as the lead instrument, together with guitar, upright bass, banjos, and other strings, which served as the rhythm section and occasionally performed solos. Some early examples on the Opry include Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters, Paul Warmack and His Gully Jumpers, and the Binkley Brothers' Dixie Clodhoppers. See the CD anthology Nashville: The Early String Bands.
A good example of the harmonica in a melodic role can be heard in the recording of “My Wife Died Saturday Night” by Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters, available on Nashville: The Early String Bands, vol. 1.
“Cross harp” is a term used widely by blues harmonica performers; see Licht, “Harmonica Magic,” 212.
Examples include Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams; for biographical studies, see note 49 above.
See Mazor, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, ch. 4.
Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot, contains helpful chapter-length profiles of Macon, the McGees (as members of the Dixieliners), and the Delmore Brothers. On blues influences and styles, see especially pages 103, 192–93, and 218–21.
Quoted in Morton, DeFord Bailey, 105. On Macon's radio listeners, see Russell, Blacks, Whites, and Blues, 55.
For Acuff's minstrelsy background, see Schlappi, Roy Acuff, 20–21; for a complete list of Acuff's recordings, including several blues numbers, see ibid., appendix B.
See Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown, ch. 11, as well as detailed analytical discussions on pages 82–84, 121–22, and 126–27.
DeFord Bailey, interview with David C. Morton, October 19, 1973, audiocassette, DBC, box 5, FS-7572; and DeFord Bailey, telephone interview with David C. Morton, February 1980, audiocassette, DBC, box 6, FS-7612.
Beecher Kirby and Roy Acuff, interview with David C. Morton, 1973, audiocassette, DBC, box 6, FS-7635. It is unclear whether these words are spoken by Acuff or Kirby.
Quoted in Oermann, “Country Music Commemorates DeFord Bailey.”
Bailey, interview, October 19, 1973.
A childhood bout of polio stunted Bailey's growth, so that in adulthood he stood less than five feet tall; see Oermann, Behind the Grand Ole Opry Curtain, 314. Bailey implies later in the interview that the concert took place in or near Scottsboro, Alabama, shortly after the 1931 arrest of the Scottsboro Boys.
See Miller, Segregating Sound, esp. ch. 6.
An appendix in Morton and Wolfe's biography entitled “Songs Performed by Bailey” lists sixty pieces, although this is most likely a list of pieces that Bailey played during his interviews with Morton in the 1970s and 1980s. At any rate, the list includes the song “My Blue Heaven,” which Bailey was explicitly prohibited from playing on the Opry because its pop origins undercut the Opry's desired rustic image. Morton, DeFord Bailey, 175–76. The live recording of Bailey on the Opry is from October 14, 1939, the first NBC-syndicated broadcast. Bailey performed four pieces: “Pan-American Blues,” “Fox Chase,” “Evening Prayer Blues,” and “Memphis Blues.” See Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot, 261–63. “Memphis Blues” does not appear in the abovementioned appendix in Morton, DeFord Bailey. The live performance of “Fox Chase” is available on the CD anthology From Where I Stand.
See Miller, Segregating Sound, 188.
On the Brunswick and Vocalion catalog series during this period, see Laird, Brunswick Records, 1:41–42.
See Rust, Victor Master Book, 1–2, 227–29. See also Bolig, Victor Black Label Discography.
Jud Collins, interview with David C. Morton, October 16, 1973, audiocassette, DBC, box 6, FS-7632.
Quoted in Morton, DeFord Bailey, 114.
See Petreycik, “Harmonica Wizard,” 16.
See “Facilities” (document detailing the history of WSM, possibly for a press release), [ca. 1950], typescript, 3 parts, 11 pp., WSM Radio and Television Collection, 1928–1966 (hereafter WSMRTC), box 12, folder 9. On the variety of WSM's weekday programming, see also Morton, DeFord Bailey, 47.
For more national perspectives on race and radio, see Barlow, Voice Over; Hilmes, Radio Voices, ch. 3; and Vaillant, “Sounds of Whiteness.” On black programming on WSM, see Havighurst, Air Castle of the South, esp. 48–51.
See Morton, DeFord Bailey, 45.
This relationship is revealed in a letter from Annie Cody, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to Frank Marlow, apparently a WSM program director. The letter thanks Marlow for his past mentions of Confederate leaders on the air and provides a list of additional birthdays and anniversaries for future reference. Annie Cody to Frank Marlow (“Uncle Frank”), [ca. 1930–45], WSMRTC, box 1, folder 2.
See Cox, Dixie's Daughters.
WSM first began tracking ratings in 1948 through the services of the Broadcast Measurement Bureau. In these initial ratings, WSM's regular listenership was approximately ten million people, country music being among the most popular programming. See Havighurst, Air Castle of the South, 152.
The Federal Radio Commission granted WSM a 50,000-watt clearance on October 1, 1931, greatly expanding its broadcast radius; see ibid., 53. Although the Opry's thirty-minute syndicated broadcasts began in 1939, WSM signed on as an NBC network affiliate in 1927; see Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot, 21, 258–59.
“Grand Ole Opry” (press release), January 1, 1958, 4 pp., GOOC, box 1, folder 5.
See Charles and Ritz, Brother Ray, 53, 80, 242. Released in 1962, Charles's album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music remains one of the most compelling examples of early country music's impact on black audiences. The album's status as “country” nevertheless remains contested, as much for stylistic as for racial reasons. The album includes several big band and orchestral arrangements of country repertoire. Although this was seemingly anathema to “authentic” country values, the commercial success of the album further encouraged Nashville studios to embrace this mode of song production during the 1960s “Nashville Sound” era. See Pecknold, “Making Country Modern.”
Quoted in Morton, DeFord Bailey, 109.
DeFord Bailey, interview with David C. Morton, December 2, 1973, audiocassette, DBC, box 5, FS-7581.
Collins, interview, October 16, 1973.
See Filene, Romancing the Folk, and Miller, Segregating Sound.
Untitled press release detailing the early history of WSM, no date, photocopy, 5 pp., WSMRTC, box 12, folder 11.
See, for example, “Grand Ole Opry, from: ‘Southern Telephone News’ … January 1960” (press release), 5 pp., GOOC, box 1, folder 5.
The ideas on blackface articulated in this section are particularly indebted to Cockrell, Demons of Disorder; Lott, Love and Theft; Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask; Roediger, Wages of Whiteness; and Toll, Blacking Up.
Hay, Story of the Grand Ole Opry, 31.
Ibid. For a fuller discussion of the duo's material, see Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot, 225–30.
Hay, Story of the Grand Ole Opry, 30.
Biggs worked with Wilds through the mid-1940s, but by 1950 he had been replaced by Harry LeVan, who also worked under the name “Jamup”; see Tom Stewart (WSM publicity director), “Jamup and Honey” (press release), January 25, 1950, GOOC, box 1, folder 6.
DeFord Bailey, interview with David C. Morton, November 30, 1973, audiocassette, DBC, box 5, FS-7580.
A 1930s publicity photograph shows Buck Martin, a member of Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader's ensemble, posing in blackface: “Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader & His Company” (Photograph 6-4), [ca. 1930s], DBC, box 1, folder 6. Whether Martin performed in blackface during radio broadcasts is doubtful. On Amos 'n' Andy, see Havighurst, Air Castle of the South, 48.
See Schlappi, Roy Acuff, 21.
See Morton, DeFord Bailey, 118.
For a demonstration of the lineage between nineteenth-century folk and minstrel banjo styles and bluegrass music, see Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown, esp. ch. 4. Pamela Fox argues that barn dance programs like the Opry engaged in a kind of class minstrelsy, with comic hillbilly stereotypes supplementing blackface characters: Fox, Natural Acts, ch. 2. Nadine Hubbs shows how this kind of class minstrelsy persists within contemporary popular culture, describing it as “Jed-face” after a character in The Beverly Hillbillies television program: Hubbs, Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, 25–27.
See Morton, DeFord Bailey, 111.
As vocal repertoire came to dominate commercial country music from the mid-1930s onward, the voice became a primary vehicle for demonstrating a performer's perceived authenticity, typically coded as white, working-class, and rural. On country music and working-class vocality, see Fox, Real Country. On African American vocality more generally, see Eidsheim, Race of Sound.
Quoted in Wolfe, Good-Natured Riot, 262–63.
According to Morton, Bailey's first publicized WSM performance took place on June 19, 1926, although he had probably played on WSM previously: Morton, DeFord Bailey, 47. For an early example of an advertisement listing Bailey, see “WSM to Present Symphony Today” (unknown newspaper clipping), no date, WSMRTC, box 13, folder 1.
“The Grand Ole Opry” (press release), [ca. 1935], GOOC, box 1, folder 5; Hay's authorship is corroborated by an identical signed press release found in the same collection: “WSM Presents ‘The Grand Old [sic] Opry,’” no date.
Press release with “WSM News Service” letterhead, [ca. 1940], 3 pp., GOOC, box 1, folder 5. This same formulation is used two decades later in WSM Grand Ole Opry, Official Opry History-Picture Book, vol. 3 (GOOC, box 4, folder 6).
A copy of the photograph shown in figure 2 is held at GOOC, box 6, folder 2 (Photograph 25). For another example, see the centerfold photograph in “The Story of: One of Radio's Biggest and Most Successful Shows: WSM Grand Ole Opry, 1925–1940” (pamphlet to prospective advertisers), GOOC, box 1, folder 7.
See Morton, DeFord Bailey, 104.
Quoted in Morton, DeFord Bailey, 104.
On infrapolitics, see Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance.
A 2019 report by the CMA notes a 55 percent increase among African American listeners and a 15 percent increase among Hispanic listeners in the past five years: “The Country Listener Audience,” February 2019, Country Music Association website, https://www.cmaworld.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/CMA_2019CMC_Aud101web-1.pdf.
Darius Rucker is probably the most high-profile black performer in country music of the last twenty years. Rucker joined the Opry cast in 2012, only the third African American to do so after Bailey and Charley Pride. See “Darius Rucker,” Grand Ole Opry website, accessed June 28, 2018, https://www.opry.com/artist/darius-rucker. Cowboy Troy, a member of the Nashville-based MuzikMafia songwriting collective, enjoyed modest commercial success in the early 2000s as a country rapper; see Gussow, “Playing Chicken with the Train.” Country rap has also included several one-off collaborations between an established white country musician and a black hip-hop musician. Examples include Tim McGraw and Nelly (“Over and Over,” 2004); Florida Georgia Line and Nelly (“Cruise (Remix),” 2013); Brad Paisley and LL Cool J (“Accidental Racist,” 2013); and Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X (“Old Town Road (Remix),” 2019). These collaborations have sometimes inspired controversy for racially problematic lyrics (“Accidental Racist”) or contested genre classification (“Old Town Road”). On “Accidental Racist,” see Hatch, “‘Accidental Racist,’” and Kosar, “Brad Paisley.” On “Old Town Road,” see Joe Coscarelli, “Country or Not, Lil Nas X's ‘Old Town Road’ Hits No. 1 on the Billboard Chart,” New York Times, April 9, 2019.
Comparisons with other institutions are informative. The National Baseball Hall of Fame has encouraged transparency in its nominating process through publicizing the names of electors, all of whom are drawn from the Baseball Writers' Association of America. In some cases, individual ballots are also published. See “BBWAA Election Rules,” National Baseball Hall of Fame website, accessed July 13, 2019, https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/rules/bbwaa-rules-for-election; and “Voter Database,” Baseball Writers' Association of America website, accessed July 13, 2019, https://bbwaa.com/voter-database/. On the politics of the baseball canon, see Allen, “Institutionalization of Fame.” In Hollywood, the lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees in 2014–15 led to the #OscarsSoWhite social media protests, begun by April Reign. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members vote on nominees, responded by expanding membership to include more women and people of color. Although this move seemed to produce a more diverse field of nominees in the next two years, media critics have remained skeptical about its continued efficacy. See Michael Schulman, “Is the Era of #OscarsSoWhite Over?,” New Yorker, January 23, 2018.