DeFord Bailey

Discover DeFord Bailey

The Harmonica Wizard

DeFord Bailey was an influential harmonica player in both country music and blues, one of the Grand Ole Opry’s most popular early performers, and country’s first African-American star.

Who Was DeFord Bailey?

One of the early stars in country music was DeFord Bailey. A Black musician who was born in 1899, DeFord grew up in rural Tennessee as part of a music-making family. He had many musical skills, such as singing and writing songs, playing the guitar and the banjo, and keeping a beat with the bones, a percussion instrument made up of two pieces of wood. But DeFord was best known for being an expert harmonica player. He earned the nickname the “Harmonica Wizard,” and he was one of the most famous harmonica players in the United States during the 1930s. DeFord began his career in the 1920s on the radio, and he quickly became a fan favorite. His playing impressed other musicians and wowed audiences. He was especially good at keeping rhythms going on the harmonica while mixing in melodies, and he could imitate real-world sounds, from machines to animals. DeFord not only developed his own versions of popular tunes of his day—including country, blues, and pop—but he also composed and improvised brilliantly. DeFord Bailey died in 1982 and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. His long-lasting and important legacy continues to inspire and delight listeners and musicians to this day.

Want to learn more about DeFord Bailey? See his Hall of Fame member page.

“A harp ought to talk just like you and me. All the time I’m just playing, I’m talking, but most people don’t understand it. In blowing a harp, it’s just like going to school to learn foreign languages. You got to learn how to make it talk in all sorts of ways. I can make it say whatever I want to.”

DeFord Bailey

DeFord Bailey Harmonica Salute | Live at the Hall

 

Hosted by the Museum’s Adam Ollendorff, Carlos DeFord Bailey, grandson of DeFord Bailey; Ketch Secor, multi-instrumentalist and front man of the band Old Crow Medicine Show; and Jake Groves, harmonica player for Colter Wall and host of WXOX Louisville’s Faint of Harp Radio Hour, talk about the influence Country Music Hall of Fame member DeFord Bailey had on the harmonica and their styles. Learn more.

Watch

Artifact Bytes: Deford Bailey

Who was DeFord Bailey and why was he important to country music?

DeFord Bailey - Pan American Blues

DeFord Bailey performs his song “Pan American Blues,” inspired by the sounds of trains, on the National Life Grand Ole Opry television show in 1967.

 

DeFord Bailey Performs "Fox Chase"

DeFord Bailey performs his legendary song “Fox Chase” on the National Life Grand Ole Opry television show in 1965.

Dom Flemons Pays Tribute to DeFord Bailey

Dom Flemons, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, pays tribute to and performs in the style of DeFord Bailey during a performance at the museum in 2018.

DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost

Watch DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost, a short documentary that features interviews with DeFord’s children and his biographer and friend, David Morton. This award-winning film was made Nashville Public Television in 2002.

DeFord Bailey

Hear Carlos DeFord Bailey play the harmonica and share insights on the instrument, music and his grandfather, DeFord Bailey.

Carlos DeFord Bailey Plays the Harmonica

Listen to Carlos DeFord Bailey, DeFord Bailey’s Grandson play part of “Pan American Blues.”

How Does the Harmonica Work?

Do you know what the harmonica is made of and how it works? Watch this video to learn about this pocket-sized instrument.

What is the Story Behind "Fox Chase"?

DeFord Bailey drew inspiration from sounds he heard in daily life. Here’s how DeFord came up with his legendary harmonica song, “Fox Chase.”

Learn About the Bailey Family Showshine Legacy

When DeFord Bailey retired from professional music, he started a successful shoeshine business in Nashville. Learn more about the history behind his grandfather’s legendary shoeshine box.

 

Harmonica Lessons

Now it's your turn to play! Watch these videos to learn about the harmonica and how to play it.

Harmonica Lesson 1
Harmonica Lesson 2

Are you interested in learning to play the harmonica?

We would love to teach you! Carlos DeFord Bailey will share his knowledge of how to play the harmonica in workshops with the museum. All youth participants will get a free harmonica!

Download & Do

Harmonica Coloring Sheet

Personalize this harmonica by adding colors and symbols to show off your creativity. Send a picture of your design to us, at FamilyFun@CountryMusicHallofFame.org, and we will add it to our online art gallery!

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Harmonica Bookmark

Color and cut out to save your spot in your favorite book.

Learn more about the harmonica and musician DeFord Bailey, who was known as the “Harmonica Wizard.”

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Seek and Find

Use this activity to learn about the life and music of Country Music Hall of Fame member DeFord Bailey, one of early country music’s most popular performers and the first Black star of the Grand Ole Opry radio program.

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Listen

DeFord Bailey was well known as a harmonica player, although he also played the banjo and guitar, and he sang. Hear his voice and some banjo and guitar tunes below.

These DeFord Bailey recordings were taped between October 1974 and October 1976 inside Mr. Bailey’s Nashville, Tennessee, apartment by David Morton and were released on the collection The Legendary DeFord Bailey: Country Music’s First Black Star (Tennessee Folklore Society Records, 1998). The recordings are used with the permission of David Morton.

Lost John
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Old Hen Cackle
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Black Man Blues
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Stove Pipe Blues
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DeFord shares a story about his grandfather
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Don't Get Weary Children
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Tennessee Arts Commission Logo
Discover DeFord Bailey is made possible by a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission.

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