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The city of Nashville will soon be renaming a street after musician and country pioneer DeFord Bailey.
According to a news report from ABC, the new DeFord Bailey Avenue will be located in the Edgehill neighborhood of Nashville when Bailey primarily resided. Scheduled for official unveiling today, Bailey’s grandsons, Carlos DeFord Bailey and Herchel Bailey, will be honoring their grandfather and the renaming of Horton Avenue with a special performance.
The process for the rechristening of Horton Avenue has been in progress since August of 2022. Spearheaded by Carlos, the idea relied on renaming a street in the Edgehill neighborhood where a historical marker is already placed.
“I wanted to name 12th Street S. from Edgehill to Fort Negley Park ‘DeFord Bailey Boulevard’,” said Carlos per a local CBS-affiliated newspaper WTVF. “Our last two or three generations don’t even know about DeFord Bailey. The younger generation needs to know about their history, about country music, and where country music originated from.”
Placed by the Tennessee Historical Commision, the marker recognizes Bailey’s achievements in music history. Born in 1899, the harmonica player is known as the first Black country musician and a key performer in the history of the Grand Ole Opry.
Upon contracting a case of polio, Bailey first picked up the instrument when he was bedridden with the disease. Having come from a long line of musicians, he quickly learned the instrument-he was already proficient in songwriting, singing, as well as playing the guitar and the banjo.
Once he mastered the harmonica, Bailey became known as the “Harmonica Wizard,” making guest appearances on radio shows where he became a fan favorite because of his talent of mixing melodies and rhythm. In 1927, his on-air performance of “Pan American Blues” officially helped shape the Grand Ole Opry as his imitation of a rolling locomotive helped it get its name. Just a year later, he became the first musician to hold a recording session in Nashville.
After playing on the Opry for 16 years, Bailey was unjustly fired by the radio broadcast. As they became embroiled in a dispute with the performance-rights organization ASCAP, the Opry prohibited Bailey from performing songs owned by ASCAP, including the tracks that Bailey was most famous for. When the musician disagreed, the Opry fired him and he retired from music, choosing to make a few public appearances in the 1970s before passing away in 1982.
For decades, both Bailey’s impact on country music and the racism he endured while in the music industry in the early 1900s were not acknowledged. It wasn’t until writer David Morton wrote a biography on the musician in 1991 that his role in country music’s history began to be appreciated.
Fourteen years later, in 2005, Bailey was officially included into the Country Music Hall of Fame in recognition of his achievements. Last year, the Opry also released a statement apologizing for the firing of Bailey as well their role in perpetuating racism in country music.