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De Ford Bailey

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DEFORD BAILEY (1899-1982)

DeFord Bailey was born in 1899 at Carthage, Smith County, Tennessee. His mother died when he was a little more than a year old, and his father’s sister and her husband reared DeFord. Stricken with infantile paralysis at the age of three years, the bedridden child was given a harmonica as a means of amusement. Bailey overcame polio, although he had a deformed back and never grew taller than four feet, ten inches. However, his skill with the harmonica and his musical talent gained Bailey renown in the field of country music.

Bailey’s impressionable years were spent around the rural communities of Newsom’s and Thompson’s stations, located near the railroad, where Bailey composed many of his tunes on the harmonica. He had to go under a train trestle on the way to school, and Bailey said he would wait for the train to go over; then “I would get under it, put my hands over my eyes, listen to the sound, and then play that sound all the way to school.” Bailey became famous for recreating the sounds of rushing locomotives. During teenage years, Bailey worked for a white storekeeper in Thompson’s Station and played the harmonica, to the delight of the customers and the proprietor. He remained with the storekeeper for some time before joining his family in Nashville, where he held several jobs. He continued to play the harmonica.
On December 6, 1925, DeFord won second place with his rendition of “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” in a French harp contest on radio station WDAD. Soon after, Bailey made his first appearance on WSM Radio, after overcoming some racial opposition from the station’s director.

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