“Evening Prayer Blues” is a mandolin tune that Bill Monroe released on “Master of Bluegrass,” his 1981 collection of mandolin instrumentals. Nearly all the tunes on the album were Monroe compositions, many played at lightning tempos, showing that at age 70, Bill was as creative and as nimble-fingered as ever. But one number stood apart from the others. “Evening Prayer Blues” was Bill’s mandolin take on a blues harmonica solo by a black harmonica virtuoso named DeFord Bailey. Bailey released his version of the tune on a Brunswick 78 in 1927 when Monroe was 16 years old. Bill and DeFord later toured together early in Bill’s tenure on the Grand Ole Opry, where DeFord was a leading and longstanding member. Their relationship, musical and personal, is the subject of this column.
As noted in an earlier column in this series regarding Bill Monroe’s influence on rock and roll, Monroe was, among other things, a bluesman. As a boy, he was heavily influenced by the old time fiddling of his uncle Pen (Pendleton Vandiver, his mother’s brother) and also by the fiddle and guitar playing of Arnold Schulz. Schulz was a black blues and old time fiddler and guitarist whose alternating bass fingerstyle guitar picking influenced Kentucky guitarists including Ike Everly and Merle Travis. During his teen years, Bill played guitar behind Schulz on fiddle for local dances that sometimes went all night. Bill’s early life was hard, he lost his parents when he was relatively young, and the weary lonesome sound of the blues likely appealed to his sensitive nature.
By the time Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys arrived at the Opry in 1939, he was already a blues master. In 1940 and 1941 he and the band would record several blues vocals and instrumentals for Victor. In a later interview with Ralph Rinzler, Monroe explained, “If you’ll listen to my work, you’ll see that there’s blues in it… If you’re down in the dumps you like to play the blues…if you feel you’ve been mistreated, why you still want to sing the blues. You don’t want to tell your story to somebody, [be]cause you don’t want to put yourself on him, you know, but you’ll sing about it.”
DeFord Bailey was born in Tennessee in 1899. He was the grandson of a former slave and Union Army veteran of the Civil War. Bailey began playing the harmonica when he was very young. A childhood bout of polio kept him bedridden for about a year and stunted his growth. While working in Nashville in the mid-1920s, his harmonica virtuosity landed him a job as one of the first members and stars of the Opry cast. The Opry, which debuted on radio station WSM in Nashville late in 1925, was then known simply as the WSM Barn Dance. Bailey was the artist whose playing helped give the program the name by which it has been known ever since—the Grand Ole Opry.
One Saturday night in December 1927 (one source says 1928), the Opry immediately followed on WSM an NBC network program of classical music. That program ended with an orchestral piece depicting the sounds of a railroad locomotive. George D. Hay, the Opry MC, opened that night’s Opry broadcast by introducing DeFord Bailey to play his “Pan American Blues” on harmonica. Bailey named the tune for the famous passenger train that passed through Nashville on its way between Cincinnati and New Orleans. (Hank Williams later wrote a song about this train.) Bailey’s rendition captured the sound and feel of the train’s powerful steam locomotive, which famously blew its whistle over the air as it passed the WSM radio tower outside Nashville. Bailey said of his performance, “Some people can play the train but they can’t make it move like I do.” When Bailey finished the tune, Hay announced, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music taken largely from grand opera. From now on, we will present the Grand Ole Opry.” Thus was named the world’s most famous radio barn dance program, still broadcast on WSM today, over 95 years later.
As his “Pan American Blues” illustrates, DeFord Bailey specialized in harmonica tunes that captured the sound and feeling of events-a train thundering by, a fox hunt (“The Fox Chase”), and even a prayer meeting (“Evening Prayer Blues”). In “The Fox Chase,” Bailey somehow manages to vocalize the cries and yips of the hunters and the hounds as he plays the harmonica.
As noted above, DeFord Bailey was an established Opry star when Bill Monroe joined the Opry in 1939. They toured the south together in the early 1940s, both before and after DeFord was unfairly fired by the Opry management in 1941. Bill was a fan of DeFord as a person and a musician. “[T]here wasn’t a better man in the world than DeFord to get along with. He was just a fine man, and with the harmonica, it was great. That’s a kind of music I love too, you know, the way DeFord played.” After Bailey died, in July 1982, Monroe played “Evening Prayer Blues” at a graveside ceremony and said “DeFord was the best harmonica player, when it came to playing the blues, of any man, I thought, that ever lived.”
DeFord Bailey similarly spoke highly of Bill Monroe: “He was a good fellow to work with and a good musician. He’d treat you right.” Restaurants and hotels in the south were segregated then, and it was hard for black musicians to get a meal and a place to stay on the road. Bill always made sure that DeFord had enough to eat and a room: “It didn’t matter what I wanted to eat, he’d get it for me. He’d see I’d eat.” Bill described walking the streets at two or three in the morning to find DeFord a place to sleep. One aspect of touring with Monroe didn’t appeal to Bailey: “He would often drive at ninety or ninety-five miles an hour down country roads at night.” Monroe would be speeding along at ninety-five “and him still mashing down on the gas-and it raining. Once he ran off the shoulder of the road, and I got him to slow down a little for the rest of the trip.” (The quotes in this paragraph and the preceding one are from Tom Ewing’s Monroe biography and Charles Wolfe’s 1974 interview with Monroe, reprinted in Ewing’s “The Bill Monroe Reader.”)
“Evening Prayer Blues” as recorded by DeFord Bailey is an impressionistic musical rendition of a prayer meeting. The harmonica lines have a vocal sound, suggestive of a preacher rhythmically praying or singing and the congregation responding in kind. At first it seems to be almost formless and unmelodic, but on close listening a pattern emerges. The recording is pure mountain soul.
Bill Monroe recorded his mandolin version of “Evening Prayer Blues” in 1981, more than half a century after DeFord Bailey’s 1927 recording and decades after his touring days with Bailey ended. Perhaps it’s the lapse of decades that accounts for the obvious differences between Bailey’s recording and Monroe’s. Bill’s rendition has a more apparent melody and structure than DeFord’s. Melodic passages that are implicit in Bailey’s harmonica playing are explicitly stated in Monroe’s mandolin version. Despite its differences from the original, Bill’s recording, like Bailey’s, is bluesy and deeply soulful.
Other artists have recorded “Evening Prayer Blues.” David Davis put his personal stamp on a version of the tune that was inspired by the Monroe recording. Mike Compton recorded a mandolin version of the tune that more closely captures on mandolin the sound of Bailey’s recording, before breaking into Monroe’s version. DeFord Bailey’s “Evening Prayer Blues” has found a home in bluegrass and has touched and inspired generations of musicians since Bailey first recorded it nearly a century ago.