• A Brief History of Evening Prayer Blues

    Mike ComptonMike Compton has been a force in the world of bluegrass mandolin since the 1980s when he co-founded the influential Nashville Bluegrass Band.

    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."

    Author Bradley Klein is a freelance journalist and an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. His production company Twangbox makes audio and video content for radio, television and the web. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and a Vega cylinder-back mandobass named Tubby!

    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.

    DeFord Bailey

    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

    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.

    Early Grand Ole Opry photo shoot with DeFord Bailey

    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.

    Additional Information

    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.
    Comments 37 Comments
    1. Spruce's Avatar
      Spruce -
      ...for those of you who haven't heard the original...

    1. 72rcgrad's Avatar
      72rcgrad -
      Wonderful article & videos! Listen to Mr. Bill speaking about Deford Bailey: https://youtu.be/6uzwL1XXSQM
    1. ekalabacos's Avatar
      ekalabacos -
      was so fortunate to have made it to this show. truly inspiring!
    1. mandotool's Avatar
      mandotool -
      Thanks Bradley..
      for those interested...a great biography on DeFord.

      some rare live performance video..
    1. reddressproductions's Avatar
      reddressproductions -

      Catch a bit of Evening Prayer Blues at the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016...

      - - - Updated - - -

      Here's another version...
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Quote Originally Posted by mandotool View Post
      for those interested...a great biography on DeFord.

      Although I credited David C. Morton and Charles K. Wolfe and their bio, I haven't been able to find either through the usual social media channels. If anyone has their contact info, I'd love to thank them directly for a job well done.
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Speaking of biographies, I'd like to share a bit of personal correspondence with Monroe's biographer, Richard D. Smith.

      Also significant -- and truly unprecedented -- is that when Monroe recorded "Evening Prayer Blues" on Feb. 19, 1981, for what became his Master of Bluegrass album, he performed it not as a solo but as a mandolin trio, in company with Larry Sledge and Jesse McReynolds.

      Bill Monroe occasionally played as part of impromptu mandolin harmony groupings on stage... but Monroe -- the supremely competitive musician -- never, to the best of my knowledge, recorded with other mandolin players in a studio. (If I've forgotten any other examples beside "Evening Prayer Blues, they were still extraordinarily rare.) So for Monroe to opt to record "Evening Prayer Blues" as a mandolin trio ... well, think about what a special act of musical communion this tune represented for him.
    1. Spruce's Avatar
      Spruce -
      Quote Originally Posted by BradKlein View Post
      Bill Monroe occasionally played as part of impromptu mandolin harmony groupings on stage... but Monroe -- the supremely competitive musician -- never, to the best of my knowledge, recorded with other mandolin players in a studio. (If I've forgotten any other examples beside "Evening Prayer Blues, they were still extraordinarily rare.)
      Besides "Evening Prayer Blues", Larry Sledge and Jesse McReynolds also played on "Melissa's Waltz For J.B." and "Lady Of The Blue Ridge" on the "Master of Bluegrass" LP...
    1. sgarrity's Avatar
      sgarrity -
      Love hearing it on the oval hole....

    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Bruce's link to DeFord Bailey's solo harmonica recording seems to have vanished from the first comment, so I am linking to a youtube version, HERE. Enjoy. And thanks for the many kind comments and to folks who have shared this fascinating story.

    1. FLATROCK HILL's Avatar
      Thanks Brad for putting up (replacing) that video. The original posted by Spruce disappeared for me too but I figured it was an issue with my computer.

      On the subject of the original DeFord Bailey's harmonica version I'm somewhat confused. I'll admit that the only version of Evening Prayer Blues I've been familiar with up until now is the Compton version. I understand (now, after reading the article) that Mike is paying tribute to Mr. Bailey's recording by doing the first part in 'A' and replicating the blues notes of the harmonica etc. When it moves into the key of 'G' it is more or less the Bill Monroe version.

      What I don't quite understand is how or why Bill Monroe's version in 'G' is even considered the same tune. I hear the basic roots of the Bailey tune in Bill's version, but to me, it sounds like Bill took a very simple and repetitive blues-run and fleshed it out into a structured 'fiddle-tune' with well defined A and B parts.

      I wonder if Bill Monroe took credit for writing his own version of this tune, or did bill allow his updated version to remain the property of DeFord Bailey?
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Hmm, looked at the code he put in. Shouldn't have worked but did for awhile. Not sure what went on there. Sometimes it's better to move on and not spend a lot of time trying to figure it out. Either way, I put the video back in there.
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Quote Originally Posted by FLATROCK HILL View Post
      I hear the basic roots of the Bailey tune in Bill's version, but to me, it sounds like Bill took a very simple and repetitive blues-run and fleshed it out into a structured 'fiddle-tune' with well defined A and B parts.

      I wonder if Bill Monroe took credit for writing his own version of this tune, or did bill allow his updated version to remain the property of DeFord Bailey?
      A couple of thoughts come to mind. One is that Monroe travelled with Bailey, and heard him play this tune live numerous times. And he probably based his adaptation on what he'd heard and his very considerable musical memory rather than the recording which he may or may not have owned. There is a second non-commercial recording of Bailey playing the tune in G and it seems that Bailey did perform it in that key at times.

      As for royalties, I presume they went to Bailey since Monroe seemed pretty clear that he considered it his tune rather than an original composition.
    1. mandotool's Avatar
      mandotool -
      Came across an interview with DeFord's grandson ..Carlos DeFord Bailey..
      He tells a story of DeFord out on the road on a Grand o'l Opry tour in the "Jim Crow South" days...
      He says Monroe went out and bought a large suitcase that DeFord who (at 4'9"tall) could fit into and how Monroe and Acuff would sneak him into hotels and carry him up the stairs in the suitcase..
      Nothing says you care like carrying somebody up the stairs in a suitcase..
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Wow! What a story. If you have a link to the interview, I'd like to read it.
    1. Elliot Luber's Avatar
      Elliot Luber -
      That video was unvailable to me, but I found others. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z20d...Xdi3jGHHlWibxA
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting that today is the birthday of DeFord Bailey, born this date 1899.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Bit of historical information for those wishing to dive deeper into the history of DeFord Bailey. On this date 2005 PBS ran a feature on DeFord that culminated in a lot of information still housed on their web site. The Timeline in particular is quite interesting.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this fine bit of writing put together for us by Bradley Klein.
    1. Mike Romkey's Avatar
      Mike Romkey -
      Thanks for reposting. Don't know how I missed this. I must have been in Scotland. Oh, wait! I was.