DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost, NPT’s Emmy-winning original production about the pioneering African American harmonica virtuoso, returns to television on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. and will also be available to stream at wnpt.org/video. The half-hour documentary about the early star of the Grand Ole Opry features appearances by Bailey’s three children and was narrated by R&B legend Lou Rawls.
DeFord Bailey learned to play the harmonica while bedridden with polio at the age of three and became a stunning player of what he referred to as “black hillbilly music.” He was a popular Opry star in the 1920s and ’30s, when the medium of radio allowed him to overcome the racial strictures of the era. Bailey also toured, however, sharing the bill with rising country stars like Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff, who appreciated the crowds drawn by his name and musical prowess. Being on the road was difficult and dangerous for Bailey, especially in the South, where Jim Crow laws meant he could not eat, lodge or socialize with his fellow performers in public.
“I was surprised to discover the amount of influence that African American musicians had on who we consider to be the fathers and grandfathers of country music,” said Kathy Conkwright, the documentary’s producer, in a 2002 Tennessean interview with Ken Beck when the film premiered. This theme of country music’s links to African American music is a prevalent one in Ken Burns’ 16-hour Country Music series premiering Sept. 15 on NPT. DeFord Bailey’s is one of the stories told in Country Music.
Bailey left the Opry roster in 1941 and refused to play in public for the next 40 years, returning for only four additional performances before his death in 1982. His return to the Opry was at the urging of David Morton, a history student who befriended him and later became his biographer. Back in 2002 when NPT’s documentary premiered, Bailey had yet to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; that changed three years later.
Bailey’s story is no longer forgotten and neither is NPT’s DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost. “We’ve heard from many people looking for the documentary over the years,” said Bridget Kling, NPT’s senior director of broadcast content. The launch of the Country Music series was an impetus to sort through licensing issues for footage and photos to bring the show back to the air and to make it available for streaming. “Now if someone’s interest is piqued, they can see more about his story,” Kling said.