In the years since, he's played on the soundtrack to the Coen Brother's movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and traveled the world performing with notable musical partners, including John Hartford.
A leading proponent of Monroe-style mandolin, his keen interest in bluegrass music's past and future makes him an indispensable part of the eight-string community.
Visiting New York last year, he teamed up with guitarist, Michael Daves for a gig at Rockwood Music Hall.
Writer and video-producer, Bradley Klein was moved by that performance to investigate the history of one tune that has become closely identified with Compton — "Evening Prayer Blues."
You might catch Mike Compton almost anywhere, and in all sorts of musical company. He might be playing a duet show with Joe Newberry; or teaching a mandolin workshop; or playing with one of several different bands. He might be touring Australia or playing a solo house concert down the street. But in any show there may well come a time when he kicks off an instrumental - solo, mid-tempo, rambling and modal but wandering back to a one-finger A chord, neither major nor minor, just the root and the five. It's Compton's haunting prelude to a tune that is itself haunted by the restless spirits of country music's origins.
Mike Compton with Michael Daves
In concert at the Rockwood Music Hall, 196 Allen St, New York, performing "Evening Prayer Blues," together for the first time.
Compton says that he doesn't remember the first time he played "Evening Prayer Blues," but he developed his own signature arrangement about fifteen years ago. "A lot of mandolin players work up a version, because it's a strong part of [the Monroe] repertoire." Bill Monroe recorded the tune late in his career for the 1981 album, Master of Bluegrass. "But I wanted to pay homage to the writer." That writer was DeFord Bailey, who recorded the tune on solo harmonica in 1927. It was issued on a 78 rpm record as part of Brunswick's Songs from Dixie series. "I wanted to pay homage to DeFord and bring him into the picture," says Compton. "And to let people know that there was a tune that Monroe worked into his own, that was written by a man he called his friend. Bill appreciated black music."
Deford Bailey is an important, but long overlooked, figure in the history of country music. In 1926 George D. Hay, the "Solemn Old Judge," coined the name Grand Ole Opry, live on-air at the fledgling radio station, WSM. By his own recollection, it was an inspired bit of improvisation as he introduced Bailey, who the Judge would go on to dub, "the Harmonica Wizard." Bailey would remain a mainstay of the Opry until 1941, and its only black performer until Charley Pride's debut in 1967. Although the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, DeFord Bailey would not be admitted until 2005, twenty-three years after his death.
Over two days in 1927, Bailey would record the eight sides that remain the core of his recorded musical legacy, including "Evening Prayer Blues." All were solo harmonica, and most were titled as blues, even though his music spanned both white and black traditions. It was as much hillbilly as blues, in the marketing parlance of the day.
Bailey was brought up in the Methodist church, and learned to play and perform gospel numbers on his harmonica. "Evening Prayer Blues," might be considered his sole gospel composition, but it was not based upon any particular hymn. It was closer to an impressionistic portrait, according to Compton. "DeFord said it was supposed to represent an old time brush arbor meeting or revival. There'd be a prominent preacher and people would come from all around and hold a convention for a number of days or a week in my experience. They'd put poles in the ground — small trees — with leaves to make some shade - they'd call it a brush arbor."
Compton reaches for his mandolin to illustrate. He plays a line from what he calls the A part of his own arrangement. It's how he begins the tune, but in this case he's referring to his adaptation of Bailey's harmonica recording, which is in the key of A. He slides through the melody imitating the bends and swells of the Hohner Marine Band harmonica that Bailey favored. "It's hard to play the chokes and slides and bends that are in the harp version on a string instrument. I have to try and imply those sounds." Compton illustrates for me doing his best to draw the wordless sounds of a distant preacher encouraging his flock from his mandolin. "DeFord's version is more like a group of singers. Bill just squared it off some."
In performance, Compton's arrangement of Bailey's crooked tune seems about to come to a close with a steady harmonic pulse on the muted low strings of his mandolin. But it is not the end. It's a modulation down to the key of G, where Monroe played the tune. "I play a chime in G... and that clears out the A version," he explains. "Bill adapted it so it could be played in a band situation." The tune remained slightly crooked in Monroe's hands but it now works in a duo, or a bluegrass band, and that's where Compton goes with it, seen in the new video that accompanies this story trading lead and rhythm with guitarist Michael Daves (their first time playing the tune together!). "It's a nice dynamic. It's communication and listening — being present in the conversation."
Monroe's attraction to the tune, and to Bailey, are easy to imagine. For one thing, the harp player was a bona fide star of the Opry when the young Monroe began listening via radio. But more than that, they'd both grown up in rural agricultural poverty. Both suffered in childhood, Monroe with his severely compromised vision, and Bailey with a bout of childhood polio that left him permanently disabled. Both withstood the early loss of parents, and made vital connections to those who stepped in to raise them. And both crossed the racial divide of the times. The harmonica wizard, grandson of slaves, survived and prospered by working for and among Southern whites. And young Bill, orphaned and living with his crippled uncle Pen, learned from and accompanied the African-American fiddler and guitarist Arnold Shultz, playing segregated dances for both black and white crowds.
DeFord Bailey and Bill Monroe
When Monroe came to WSM in 1939, the two musicians toured together in the tent shows that were a vital commercial enterprise for the Opry stars. By all accounts Monroe, who towered over Bailey, looked out for the older musician as they traveled the Jim Crow South. And many years later, toward the end of his life, Monroe seemed to take a certain pride in his own iconoclasm when it came to race. He would freely acknowledge his debt to Shultz. And he'd invariably credit Bailey before performing Evening Prayer Blues.
As for DeFord Bailey, he was fired from the Opry in 1941. "They said he was lazy and wouldn't learn any new material," says Compton. It's a story supported by the Opry's own Judge Hay who leveled the accusation of laziness in his 1941 memoir. Later scholarship indicates that a conflict between the performer rights companies, ASCAP and BMI may have played a role. "But I think it was strictly about politics," adds Compton. Racial politics? "Yes, yes. I think so. Because he was certainly not lacking in incentive. He was a very enterprising man." And Bailey himself placed the blame squarely the Opry's management. "They turned me loose with a wife and kids to root hog or die. Judge Hay did all he could. If he'd helped me, he'd have lost his job too. At that time, a white man couldn't do too much for a black person. I was a black man."
Early Opry Photo
DeFord Bailey in an early Opry photo shoot, top row, far left.
I finished my talk with Compton by asking him about his attraction to the pioneers of early country music. He says of Monroe, "He was a radical back in his time, to use a word that Hartford used. He was a radical like Scruggs was a radical. Like Thile was a radical. And Vassar was a radical. And I'm sure that other people before them were just as far out... but we don't have recordings of them, so I can't speak their names."
DeFord Bailey could easily have become one of those unrecorded and forgotten innovators. Just eleven sides were released, recorded in a few days in the 1920s. "The style of playing that I love is out of vogue," says Compton, "and I feel that it deserves a voice. It's no less powerful than when it was in fashion. I guess that is a privilege that I have taken for my own."
Bill Monroe - Evening Prayer Blues
Video by Michelle Putnam who told us for this article, "I requested 'Evening Prayer Blues' that long-ago cold Sunday morning as my camera rolled. Monroe obliged, as always." L-R: Michael Feagan on fiddle, Clarence "Tater" Tate on bass, Blake Williams on banjo, Bill Monroe, and Tom Ewing on guitar.
- Mike Compton web site
- Mike Compton Interview on the Mandolin Cafe (2010)
- Mike Compton's Monroe-Style Mandolin on Peghead Nation
- Mike Compton on Facebook
- Michael Daves web site
- Michael Daves' Artistworks Bluegrass Vocal Lessons
The author gratefully acknowledges his debt to the definitive biography, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music by David C. Morton with Charles K. Wolfe. 1991 University of Tennessee Press.