For six decades, folklorist Bill Ferris has broken some of the country's biggest racial barriers. Now, he's sharing the South's story with the world | Music Feature | Indy Week
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For six decades, folklorist Bill Ferris has broken some of the country's biggest racial barriers. Now, he's sharing the South's story with the world 

Bill Ferris at UNC-Chapel Hill

Photo by Justin Cook

Bill Ferris at UNC-Chapel Hill

If the American South remains a provincial punch line for the world at large, no one bothered to tell the 9,000-plus students from 128 countries that Bill Ferris spent six weeks teaching late last year.

They all enrolled in what UNC-Chapel Hill calls a MOOC, or a Massive Open Online Course. The program explored oral histories and folk traditions, Southern writers and musicians, with sounds as regional and rich as fife-and-drum bands, work chants and the Delta blues. Almost every interview, photograph, recording and film clip—and there were a lot—came from Ferris.

"Nowhere in the world has the South not been heard—Elvis, Faulkner, Gone with the Wind," he says of the broad appeal of both the class and his region. "There is an increasingly open door to the South both ways, people looking for something to identify with and understand. The voices I've recorded stand tall."

The 73-year-old UNC professor has spent six decades becoming Southern culture's chief documentarian. Equally at home on Mississippi state work farms or in college lecture halls, Ferris has broken some of America's biggest racial divides to collect tales of a sometimes-hidden history. It's a story he likes to share, too.

Now a director of The Center for the Study of the American South at UNC, Ferris is a longtime professor and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the co-editor of the enormous and authoritative Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, a lecturer, a blues disc jockey and the author of nearly a dozen books that provide a street-level view of the region during the last century.

"Being a documentarian of the South," he says, "is who I am to the core."

Ferris possesses a youthful appearance and a quiet confidence. He talks about his life in near run-on sentences.

"It's compulsive. I carry the camera—now it's digital—but I am always photographing people and places, trying to orient myself and to position myself through the camera, in relationship to the other, which is the South," he says. "It's part of my DNA to do this."

Others have long sensed that, too: In 1968, Christine Thomas opened the door of her house in Leland, Mississippi, to find a slender, serious young white man. It was Ferris.

"What do you want?" she asked.

He kept a respectful distance.

"I'm looking for James Thomas," he said.

"He doesn't live here," she answered, and he turned to leave. "What do you want with him?"

"I'm doing a book on the blues," Ferris answered, "and I want to put him in it."

She studied the college student for a moment: "He'll be back in an hour. Come in and wait."

Nearly five decades later, Ferris remembers that day as the start of a relationship that produced loads of interviews, recordings, photographs and even the name of his obsessive 2009 book about rock 'n' roll's daddy, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. The title is a Thomas lyric.

In subsequent visits, Thomas' children would take Ferris' hand and walk him into their bedrooms, where they would sing him their songs. Those kids made it onto Ferris' tape recorder. They remain his friends.

"I was never turned down," Ferris says. "I just wanted to get in the door. Once you were face-to-face inside, things began to happen, which would lead to other people, and the circle would quickly widen."

Ferris did with James "Son Ford" Thomas what he has done with folkloric subjects all his life, before he even self-identified as a documentarian: He approaches them honestly. He makes his way through the world, not on bluff or bluster, but on the assumption of a common humanity.

He describes his life as a continuation of this process—documenting the intimate and the formal through proximity and respectful distance. Through his work, he has drawn an almost all-encompassing circle of culture in the South, from black to white, rich to poor, educated to illiterate.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.—the Harvard professor and executive producer, writer and host of PBS' Finding Your Roots—first met Ferris when they were both young teachers in Yale's program in Afro-American Studies. The chairman, Charles T. Davis, conducted a worldwide search for the premier scholar of blues and black folklore. He found Ferris, who changed their minds on exactly how Southern culture works.

"Bill had a Rolodex that a Hollywood agent would have died for," Gates remembers. "He brought to campus a wide range of black and white performers of what he made us realize was actually 'Southern Culture' and not just African-American culture."

During his tenure at Yale, Ferris nominated B.B. King for an honorary degree.

"One can safely say that this was the first time that the blues had entertained so many 'Old Blues' at one time," Gates says. "When they write the history of multiculturalism in this country, Bill Ferris' name will have pride of place. He has taught a generation of Americans how diverse our roots really are, and how inextricably intertwined they are."

Like all Southern writers, Bill Ferris defines himself through place. Born in 1942, Ferris grew up on a farm in Warren County, Mississippi, 15 miles southeast of the Civil War siege at Vicksburg. Even today, he describes the place as his "spiritual compass."

"The farm was in fact inhabited by many more black people than white people," Ferris wrote in the introduction to Give My Poor Heart Ease, "and in important ways, I always felt that it was a black community."

One of his babysitters, Virgil Simpson, was black. She would take Ferris and his four siblings across pastures to hunt guinea eggs in nests along the fencerows. She once kept the kids up late, dancing to the radio in her cabin, at least until his parents returned around midnight.

"They sent us straight to bed," Ferris wrote, "but I never forgot the association of music and dance with freedom."

The region's tradition of racial tension struck Ferris at an early age. His best friend, Amos Sampson, was black and lived on the farm, too. When he was 5, they both headed to school but branched in different directions—one to black school, the other to white school. When Ferris asked why, he was told he must learn to accept differences. That's just how the system worked.

"That was when it was brought home that race is something that's going to be a problem in your life," Ferris says. "But I've always had a problem with authority, whether it was my father, or my commanding officer in the military, or a department chair. When someone tries to make me go one way, I instinctively want to go the other."

When his parents gave Ferris his first camera at the age of 12, he took two sets of pictures—one of the Christmas table at his grandmother's house and one of the baptism of a black baby in a little bayou on the farm.

As he got older, this impulse became more fraught. In the '60s, for instance, a white farmer introduced him to a black musician employed on his land. Other white men, all armed, surrounded the meeting. The musician refused to come out, so the farmer threw rocks at his roof until he obeyed. After a brief porch performance, the musician stopped, complaining of a finger cramp. Ferris arranged to meet him again at another black musician's house. There, he played for hours, drinking whiskey and cursing his white boss.

"Any time you want to come down here," the man told Ferris, "you drive to my damn house. Ain't a damn soul gonner fuck with you, white or black."

From then on, and often at the risk of arrest, Ferris would enter a black community without the permission of local whites. He would buy groceries for his hosts, spend Saturday nights at juke joints, and attend church services on Sundays, all the time recording and taking pictures. He'd send his new friends prints of the photographs, along with a careful note of thanks. He knew what to do, even though he wasn't sure why he did it.

"Like a lot of what I've done in my life," Ferris says, "there was probably a point I realized these things are significant and should be in an archive. Before that, I just felt they were important in a deeper way. It's part of what I was put on earth to do—to see that these voices are not lost."

Ferris filled the trunk of his Chevy Nova with gear—a 35mm camera that his brother, Grey, taught him how to use, a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder, 200-watt light bulbs, a Super 8 movie camera scored at a discount by a cousin in the military. He used it all to capture black Mississippi musicians and the sounds they made.

Back in Leland, for instance, he recorded James Thomas' laconic acoustic blues and filmed him sculpting skulls of clay. He documented a baptism in Vicksburg, the white-clad congregants gliding down to the river like ghosts. In the northeast Mississippi community of Gravel Springs, Ferris filmed a Labor Day picnic where Otha Turner's fife-and-drum band tied a strange musical knot. Marching European percussion played an African rhythm, supporting Turner's unearthly piping. Turner made fifes from cane cut in the bottomland.

"They were my teachers. What I learned was that these were the richest voices that I'd ever heard," he says. "I wanted to soak up everything I could with my tape recorder and camera."

At the age of 22, Ferris finally came to understand that there was a place in the world for someone with his peculiar obsessions, a field called folklore. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, he brought a box of tapes and photographs to his advisor.

"Is this the kind of thing I can do here?" Ferris asked.

"My boy," he was told, "that will be your dissertation. Just keep doing it."

In 1969, the U.S. Army discharged Ferris as a conscientious objector. The next year, he became an assistant English professor at Mississippi's predominantly black school, Jackson State University. State police had just killed two young men there during a Vietnam War protest. Though these deaths happened soon after the notorious Kent State shootings in Ohio, the incident remains obscure.

"They were black," Ferris says, "so they did not count."

When Ferris began looking for housing near the school, white landlords wanted his money until they realized where he'd be working. They told him the neighbors wouldn't be comfortable with social calls from black students. He came to live two houses from the home where civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963. Ferris organized the Mississippi Folklore Society and became its first president. When the organization held an integrated meeting in 1971, a bomb threat followed.

"I am not a brave person, and I was often afraid of doing the work I do," he now admits.

But he persisted. The folklorist John Lomax and his son, Alan, had begun to document Southern black culture on an unprecedented level. Ferris took it further.

"I was using my documentary instincts to negotiate worlds that were dangerous, and yet very exciting," he says. "That's how I entered and engaged that period, by going into black homes and into communities and trying to hear the voices of people that had never been audible. They were not allowed on the airwaves. They were not allowed in the spaces that I inhabited, as a white Mississippian. You didn't hear people who were angry and black saying things I was able to record in my documentary work. I basically saw through the veil of race and was able to pass over into the black community because of what I did."

He met another kind of skepticism in the classroom, this time from his black students. Because of his complexion, he says, they viewed him as a foreigner. But he'd already done the work necessary to get beyond that barrier, too.

"I'd ask where they were from. They'd say 'Centreville, Mississippi,' and I'd say, 'Do you know Fannie Bell Chapman, the gospel singer?' And they'd look at me like, 'Who are you? How do you know these people?'" he remembers. "That moved us way down the road. They'd turn in papers on their family members who were quilt makers or blues singers."

The integration that had been so slow to happen across America was quickening in Ferris' classrooms in the heart of Mississippi.

It can be difficult these days to believe in social progress. In some ways, race relations have thawed very little since the 1960s. The United States is characterized by disunity and paralysis.

But if there is a theme to Bill Ferris' life and work, it is the pursuit of unencumbered understanding. The bulky equipment he carried in the trunk of his car can now be shrunk to the size of a smart phone, with the results put online for the world to see. The voices he's given readers and listeners the opportunity to hear—"from the inside as much as possible," he insists—are less in need of an intermediary, even one as engaged and experienced as Ferris.

He has used this to his advantage. Ferris' online international course, "The American South: Its Stories, Music, and Art," concluded its six-week run in November. It's now available for free on demand to anyone interested in the region's oral, musical and literary traditions. These voices hit people in the gut, Ferris explains, "especially young people who are searching for authenticity in music or life. They come face-to-face with a reality that these voices deliver that is very familiar, whether they're in China or South America or France."

But how can a place of such traditional regionalism become universal?

"It's like a hearth where people come to talk," he says. "It's non-threatening. It's open. The powerful, symbolic worlds of America are not the worlds that people across the globe are comfortable with. They're threatened by them. But you present the worlds I've worked with, they're familiar voices. You don't have to explain who these people are. They've already seen them."

Ferris' work has identified what he calls "the global south." The ambition that lies at the heart of this concept is simple and profound: We are not separate, neither by color nor culture. Do not believe that old lie.

"Nothing changes," Ferris says. "It's the old matters of the heart. I find myself falling back on those voices and the people I've been privileged to meet along the way: the famous and not-so-famous, the B.B. Kings, the Eudora Weltys, prison inmates, mule traders, auctioneers, quilt makers. They're all a part of a common picture."

It is a cold November day in his office at the Love House at UNC-Chapel Hill. He sits at a large desk, the broad sweep of a wraparound porch visible through the window behind him. The excitement in his voice begins to catch. Ferris' success, it seems, has three united, guiding principles: an unending interest in a good story, an innate recognition that there is no bad story, and a sincere gratitude for the opportunity to hear any story.

"It's a part of what Balzac said in La Comédie humaine: They're all connected at the waist. If you understand a part of it, you understand the rest," he says. "That's what my work seeks to do. Rather than compartmentalize the writers and blues singers, put them in a room. You can talk. Everyone's at the table together."


Hand-me-down numbers: the inspiration of Alan Lomax

In the early 1930s, Mississippi's John Lomax began making field recordings for the Library of Congress. He and his family—his wife, Ruby, and his son, Alan—toured the South, capturing music performed by penitentiary inmates. They wanted the ones who "still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies." The recording machine they carried in the trunk of their car weighed more than 300 pounds.

During the next decade, the Lomaxes traveled across the country, recording black schoolgirls, Mexican cotton pickers, cowboys and old-time fiddlers, looking for expression that transcended the individual. To them, folk music, in function and form, was about community. The value of the legacy they built is incalculable.

click to enlarge Alan Lomax - COURTESY OF THE WILLIAM R. FERRIS COLLECTION (20367), SOUTHERN FOLKLIFE COLLECTION, THE WILSON LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT CHAPEL HILL. COPYRIGHT OF THIS IMAGE IS RETAINED BY BILL FERRIS.
  • Courtesy of The William R. Ferris Collection (20367), Southern Folklife Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Copyright of this image is retained by Bill Ferris.
  • Alan Lomax

"I see the Lomaxes as my mentors," Bill Ferris says. In particular, he describes Alan as "much more political and radical ... my inspiration."

"I started on the farm where I grew up in Warren County, outside of Vicksburg," Ferris says. "That for me is what Alan found in the hills of Mississippi, the deepest and truest kind of compass, where your life would take you. So I see that there is a legacy, of which I am a proud part, to document these worlds and to leave your little piece on the table so that hopefully others take it to the next level."

That continuation is clear in a 1976 letter Alan sent to Ferris.

"In my opinion, folklore is the hardest of all professions. ... I think you're well on your way and I know you've got to publish or perish, but I think it's a bad idea to settle for anything less than the best when what we do does count so much to the people, themselves," Alan wrote. "I feel more than a friend—I feel that, in a way, I have been a sponsor of yours."

In May, Ferris will conduct a lecture in French at an Alan Lomax symposium in Rouen, France, for the centennial celebration of Lomax's birth. Ferris' book Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues is now in its second printing as the French edition Les Voix du Mississippi.

The Southern Diaspora is, indeed, global. —Tom Maxwell

This article appeared in print with the headline "Old times, not forgotten."

  • The 73-year-old UNC professor has spent six decades becoming Southern culture's chief documentarian

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