American Legacy, the magazine of African-American history and culture, has an insightful article in their summer issue on Deford Bailey, the first black star of the Grand Ole Opry. Bailey played harmonica on the very first show in which the name “Grand Ole Opry” was used, in 1927, and continued performing until 1941, when he got in the middle of a royalties fight between ASCAP and BMI and quit.
Unlike his blues counterparts, Bailey played a country-flavored harmonica. You can hear several of his songs here. While on the Opry, he was very popular with audiences and performers alike. The fact that the Opry was on radio and listeners could not see him made it easier to break a black performer into country music.
Bailey put up with a great deal of racism in his life. He was often referred to as “the mascot” of the Opry, and when he traveled with Opry stars, he was refused service at hotels and restaurants. When he left the Opry, he set up a shoeshine business in downtown Nashville and ran it, according to the article, until 1971, when he was 72 years old. He died in 1982, and was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
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