100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #78.

De Ford Bailey
78. DeFord Bailey, “Pan American Blues”

(DeFord Bailey)
Vocalion 5180, 1927 · mp3
Just as country music was beginning to cohere, fitfully and irascibly as ever, into an idiom, a shared language defined against other kinds of music that weren’t country — pop, or jazz, or the blues, or grand opera — a young Tennessee polio sufferer became one of its biggest stars; and its first-ever black star. (The first, indeed of a number you can count on the fingers of one hand.) He was a harmonica player, and he played astonishingly well, imitating sounds he heard in nature: the hard breathing and galloping terrain of a fox chase, the varied noises of the farm animals his uncle worked with as he was growing up, and this. The Pan American passenger train crossed through Nashville on its nightly run between Cincinnati and New Orleans, and the WSM radio station broadcast its passing whistle every night. The young Bailey, impressing some of the right people, got a regular gig on WSM’s Barn Dance program on Saturday nights. Then one Saturday, following NBC’s stuffy Music Appreciation Hour, the station manager said, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present . . . .” Well, anyway, he said it just after the opening number, which was DeFord Bailey playing “The Pan American Blues,” a song — or, rather, a piece — which has nothing to do with the blues in either form or content, but simply replicates, in intimate detail, the sound of a moving train on harmonica. The idea was in the air: in a delicious irony, French composer Arthur Honegger had written a work called Pacific 231 which used an orchestra to achieve the same effect four years earlier. You could call it one of the earliest masterpieces of industrial music, if you were so inclined; you would more or less have to call it a virtuoso performance. But what makes it especially significant is that it was the first thing ever played on the Grand Ole Opry, and it was by a black man. The relationship couldn’t last, of course; by 1942 Bailey was hustling to shine shoes, cut hair, rent rooms. He’s in the Country Hall of Fame, now; but in hindsight, there’s nothing particularly Country about either the harmonica or any of Bailey’s playing. If he’d come up just two or three years later, Nashville would never have so much as glanced at him.

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