Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “Country Music,” which first aired this week and continues next week, spotlights DeFord Bailey, a black man, who was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry.
The documentary also explores the role African Americans played in the development of the county music, which is usually associated with whites, many of them racist as hell.
Much to my horror, the documentary shows a country band standing near storefront sign advertising a Klu Klux Klan meeting. This image was ingrained by television programs like “Hee Haw” where everyone was white and all the men appeared to be named “Bubba.”
Even in the segregated South, Burns’ showed photos of blacks sitting together with whites and even dancing in the same room but not with each other.
DeFord Bailey, who played the harmonica, guitar and banjo, was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry, the citadel of country music. Enslaved black men and black women brought the banjo to America.
Bailey played the harmonica like a virtuoso, which would later influence rock musicians like John Lennon of the Beatles. Lennon was the first rock musician I saw playing the harmonica during a concert.
On December 10, 1927, Bailey debuted “Panama Blues” on WSM Radio’s Barn Dance. His other hit was “Fox Chase, ” about hounds chasing a fox. One woman wrote WSM. She asked the station to let her know when it would again play “Fox Chase. ”
The last time the station did, her dog began barking and running around the house searching for the fox, the woman wrote. Bailey was an innovator, he sang ‘get em, get em” was urging the dogs to catch their prey.
Burns’ documentary also explores how white musicians, including Jimmy Rogers, Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams played with black street musicians to learn their craft. Rogers, Monroe and Williams later would become country music superstars. Elvis also borrowed from African Americans.
Rufus “Tee Top” Payne, a black man, mentored Williams. He exposed Williams to the blues and taught him how to improvise guitar chords.
Williams paid for a memorial to Payne in a Montgomery, Alabama, cemetery, where he is buried. Payne died March 17, 1939, at the age of 56. Williams died January 1, 1953.
Many years ago, I was visiting Nashville on business. A wall in the hotel, where I was staying, had framed photographs of the Grand Ole Opry’s early stars. Bailey’s photograph wasn’t among them.
The music industry promoted the country music’s white artists. Songs by blacks were called “Race Music.”
The Grand Ole Opry fired Bailey in 1941. Judge George D. Hay, founder of the Grand Ole Opry, called Bailey a lazy black man.
“That brings us to DeFord Bailey, a little crippled colored boy who was a bright feature of our show for about fifteen years. Like some members of his race and other races, DeFord was lazy. He knew about a dozen numbers, which he put on the air and recorded for a major company, but he refused to learn any more, even though his reward was great. He was our mascot and is still loved by the entire company. We gave him a whole year’s notice to learn some more tunes, but he would not. When we were forced to give him his final notice, DeFord said, “I knowed it waz comin’, Judge, I knowed it waz comin’.'” To survive, Bailey rented out rooms in his house and opened a shoe shine parlor.
Bailey last performed at the Grand Ole Opry in April 1982. He was inducted into to Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Bailey died July 2, 1982, in Nashville, Tennessee.
It has been generally assumed that blacks did not like country music. Those who did were often ridiculed and because of this they kept silent.
Many years ago, I attended a Eddie Harris jazz concert in Seattle. Harris put down Charley Pride (Pride will be featured in the next segment of Country Music, which begins Sunday) , a black county western singer. The audience cheered and laughed.
My father, Mitchell Lowe, would not have been one of them. He wore straw cowboy hats and cowboy boots. In his car, my dad listened to eight-track tapes of Hank Snow, the Canadian country western singer.
If my dad were alive today, I would ask him if he wanted to be a country western singer or a cowboy?