Morton discusses friendship with country music legend

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, February 4, 2020

VALLEY — When David Morton was working on his Ph.D. in history from Vanderbilt in the early 1970s, he took a part-time job with the Nashville area housing authority. He had no idea at the time that it would be a life-changing experience for him. On the one hand, being in the administration of public housing proved to be a good career for him. He and his wife have been able to travel all over the world.

He recently retired after a long career in the field, first in Nashville and more recently in Reno, Nevada.

It was also life-changing for him to meet an elderly man named DeFord Bailey.

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“I met an elderly white woman one day who told me I ought to do a story on DeFord Bailey,” he told an overflow crowd at Monday’s Lunch N Learn program at Bradshaw-Chambers County Library. “I asked her, ‘Who’s he?’ She told me he had been an early performer on the Grand Ole Opry and was really good at playing the harmonica.”

Shortly after that, Morton went back home to visit his parents in the Shawmut community. Knowing that they’d been big fans of country music and the Grand Ole Opry, David asked his dad, the late Wilson Morton, if he’d ever heard of a black harmonica player that used to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.

“You mean DeFord Bailey?” Mr. Morton asked.

“When I told him that I knew him and could arrange for him and my mom to visit him, they were absolutely floored. They were amazed that he was still living and that they could meet him.”

DeFord Bailey was one of the original stars of the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast in the early days of country music from radio station WSM in Nashville. The now-famous program began in 1925 as the WSM Barn Dance. It got its well-known name a couple of years later, largely due to DeFord Bailey’s suggestion.

In the era of Jim Crow segregation, especially in the Deep South, radio listeners and country music stars loved DeFord Bailey and what he could do on stage. He was best known for the way he could play the harmonica, but he was also a virtuoso on the guitar and banjo. He was also a first-rate blues artist.

“He toured with people like Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe,” Morton said. “They wanted him because he was good, and they enjoyed watching him perform. They also wanted him along to help build the crowd.”

Traveling meant dealing with segregation. In those days, it was hard for black people to find places to eat, sleep or to use the restroom. Many nights he would sleep in a car curled under an army blanket. When he wasn’t on stage, he pretty much lived in the car. Guys like Acuff and Monroe would buy meals for him to eat in the car.

“DeFord Bailey performed every Saturday night on the Grand Ole Opry from 1925 to 1941,” Morton said. “No one else came close to that.”

When Morton got to meet Bailey for the first time, he’d become something of a hermit. He’d left the Grand Ole Opry in 1941 as the result of an ongoing feud between music publishers ASCAP and BMI, both wanting to limit the kinds of music that could be played live. DeFord Bailey didn’t have the copyrights to the tunes he was well known for such as “The Pan American Blues” (in which he could masterfully replicate the sound of a freight train rolling down the tracks), “Ain’t Gonna Rain No More,” “Fox Chase,” and “Shoeshine Boy.”

For many years, Bailey had dropped out of performing music altogether, making a living running a shoeshine business and renting rooms.

“He moved into public housing in 1971,” Morton said. “I met him in 1973. I considered him a living legend and felt blessed just to know him. We developed a strong bond. He called me his manager and asked me to do two things for him: (1) to tell his story and (2) to mark his grave.”

Bailey died at 83 years of age in 1982.

Morton has done well in carrying out both of those requests. He has written a critically acclaimed book on Bailey and was interviewed about him for the much-praised Ken Burns’ documentary on country music. The elaborate stone that marks Bailey’s final resting place was quarried in Elberton, Georgia, a town famous for its white marble, and engraved by Morton’s dad, who was well known for his Shawmut memorial business. “My dad was a true fan of his,” Morton said. “He bought the monument and arranged for it to be put in the cemetery.”

The ceremony was well-publicized in Nashville. The original stars of country music who were still living were there for it.

One lasting recognition remained — to have DeFord Bailey in the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was something Bailey did not receive until 2015. Morton was there for the ceremony along with many well-known people in the country music field.

Morton managed to persuade Bailey to perform for special occasions.

“I worked with Judd Collins of WSM to get him back on the Opry,” Morton said. “He celebrated his 75th birthday on the Opry, and Roy Acuff was there. That was a really special night for everyone.”

Bailey was only about five feet in height. He’d suffered from polio as a child, and the disease stunted his growth. His mother encouraged him to learn the play what they called a French harp, today known as the harmonica.

“He was still playing it on the day he died,” Morton said. “He said that to him playing the harmonica was like drinking water. It was something he had to do every day.”