More heard-about than heard, DeFord Bailey may've been the first musician to record in Nashville (in 1928), and was the only African American regularly associated with early Grand Ole Opry broadcasts — before being unceremoniously dumped in 1941. (The “Harmonica Wizard” had performed his crowd-pleasers over and over by request; Opry folk later claimed he was fired for always playing the same tunes.) All that aside, he's a stunning harmonica player, with a shouting tone, percussive attack, superior articulation and powerful drive: the Evan Parker of the mouth-harp, if that helps.
These unaccompanied showpieces confirm how much 20th century musical rhythms owe to the locomotive; Bailey first gained attention with uncanny train impersonations like “Pan American Blues.” Rail rhythms, blues, field hollers, animal novelties (“Old Hen Cackle,” “Fox Hunt”) and folk tunes (“John Henry”) all run together in his repertoire, reminding us that Southern rural white and black musics were not always far apart: diverse branches have common roots. This essential set collects all his commercial sides, recorded in New York and Nashville in 1927 and '28.