Early ‘eccentric interest’ leads to Grammy for folklorist Bill Ferris

Posted 6/5/20

CHAPEL HILL — When Bill Ferris, now 78, was a kid in Mississippi, he was immersed in the culture brimming around him, and decided — at the age of 12 — to begin documenting it.

There was …

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Early ‘eccentric interest’ leads to Grammy for folklorist Bill Ferris

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CHAPEL HILL — When Bill Ferris, now 78, was a kid in Mississippi, he was immersed in the culture brimming around him, and decided — at the age of 12 — to begin documenting it.

There was music. A lot of it — church hymns and the blues. And there were stories.

And there were the people, many of them black, who created the music and passed the stories along.

The region was rich in this uniquely Southern culture.

But few were stopping, as they say, to smell the roses.

Certainly, few were making recordings of those songs the people were writing and singing and passing along. Few were transcribing the lyrics of hymns which, left unrecorded, would die with the people who sang them.

When Ferris, on the brink of his teen years, first picked up a camera to begin documenting the culture around him, there wasn’t then, as there is now in Mississippi, the Center for Southern Folklore, or the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, in Chapel Hill.

Those places — dedicated, as their names say, to the study and preservation of Southern culture — would come later. And largely thanks to Ferris and his work.

A ‘very robust field’

Fledgling Southern folklorists today can find college courses they seek — through a wide range of disciplinary perspectives from music to politics — on campuses including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of South Carolina, the University of Mississippi.

“It’s a field that is very robust,” said Ferris, the now-retired UNC history professor, who lives with his wife Marcie — who’s also retired from teaching at UNC and is herself an author — at their home in Chatham County.

It’s a field Ferris has played a huge role in forging.

His resume is lengthy, but among the highlights:

Ferris has written 10 books on Southern culture and was co-editor of “The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” the seminal work, published in 1989, which U.S. News & World Report called “the first attempt ever to describe every aspect of a region’s life and thought, the impact of its history and policies, its music and literature, its manners and myths, even the iced tea that washes down its catfish and cornbread.”

He is a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He also served as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where he was a faculty member for 18 years.

He is senior director emeritus of the Center for the Study of the American South in Chapel Hill, and is an adjunct professor emeritus in UNC’s folklore curriculum.

He also happens to be a Grammy winner.

In 2018, Ferris’ decades of work in the arena of southern studies was capped by the release of a career-spanning collection of his field recordings, “Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris,” released by Atlanta-based record label Dust-to-Digital. The box set — and its accompanying book — won Ferris two Grammy Awards last year.

An ‘eccentric interest’

But when Ferris first took a notion as a young man growing up on a cotton, soybean and cattle farm in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to begin documenting the culture surrounding him, there were no academic courses devoted to the study of the South, and few role models and resources to which he could turn.

“I really started this work almost from birth,” he said, “in the sense that I was born on a farm in Mississippi and grew up surrounded by storytellers and music. I used to go to a little black church every first Sunday and learn the spirituals and hymns. I had no idea that that part of my world, which was so important, was something I would end up studying and teaching.”

“I had been doing recordings on the farm where I grew up,” Ferris said, “just because when I went to church as a young child, I loved the music. And as I grew older, I realized there were no hymnals in the church and when the families were no longer there, the music would disappear. So that was the impetus to record and photograph, and later film, the services. I didn’t know there was any value to that and my family thought it was sort of an eccentric interest that wouldn’t lead anywhere.”

Whether eying a future in the work or not, Ferris persisted.

“The study of the south, I just did it because I loved the work,” he said. “I didn’t think of it as work. It was just something I wanted to do. But it was only much later, really, when I was teaching at Yale and I was offered a position as director — the first director of the Center to Study Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi — that I began to try to envision my own work in relation to the American South in a more sort of focused way.”

“I’d always been a Southerner and my relationship with the region was a very important part of my development, both living in the South and living outside of it as a student, and later teaching at Yale,” he said. “When I went to Oxford to develop the Center, I began to try to see my own work in relation to the study of the South and a field that never existed before called Southern Studies.”

As a young folklorist, Ferris “would have loved to have been able to do a degree in Southern Studies,” he said, “to work with people in the fields of history and literature and music and religion, which now is possible and encouraged. But all that had to be sort of articulated and developed over time.”

‘The dean of it all’

After attending public schools in his hometown of Vicksburg, Ferris left Mississippi to continue his education at Brooks School in North Andover, Mass and later studied at Davidson College in Davidson, where he earned a B.A. degree in English Literature.

While no courses existed in the precise field of study Ferris had, on his own, been pursuing, as a student at Davidson, Ferris discovered the work of Alan Lomax, the pioneering ethnomusicolagist, born in 1915, who captured field recordings of folk music and folk musicians. Lomax had recorded thousands of songs — by scores of unknown artists as well as the likes of folk musician Woody Guthrie and blues musician Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter — which were preserved at the Library of Congress. Lomax also complied a book, “Folk Songs of North America,” devoted to the preservation of folk music.

Ferris said Lomax, whom he later befriended, was “the dean of it all. He was there recording before anyone else. To me, he was a role model and inspiration.”

Lomax’s book, containing the lyrics and music of songs such as “John Henry” and “Darlin’ Corey,” was likewise “sort of our Bible,” Ferris said.

“When I stumbled on those Lomax recordings [while at Davidson] and I realized some of them were done in Mississippi and were kind of similar to what I’d been doing, that kind of validated my own work in my mind. Later I got to know Alan. He was a friend. He came to Yale and spoke to my students.”

‘Sense of place’

At UNC, where Ferris joined the faculty in 2002, students pursuing Southern Studies are “doing incredible work,” Ferris said.

“There are a lot of students that are marching to different drummers and, as in my case, when they find folklore it’s like a lifeline,” Ferris said.

But why is the work of documenting and preserving folklore and folk life important?

“What is important about the work,” said Ferris, “is it goes to the heart and soul of people and the places where they live. Music and stories are as old as the human experience on the planet and they ground us in what I call ‘sense of place.’ We live in the Piedmont and that is where bluegrass was forged. Look at Earl Scruggs and some of the other musicians; the music of the Mississippi Delta, the blues; jazz and New Orleans; country music and places like Nashville. What the folklorist does is peel that onion and try to understand what is it about that song, or that music, that is a key to opening the door of places and the lives of people.”

Those people range from “very famous musicians like B.B. King,” Ferris said, to “totally unknown artists like prison inmates. They all have a common thread in their life, which is the stories and music that shaped them. And it’s something we all identify with.”

‘Turned my life upside down’

“Voices of Mississippi,” the three-CD set (two discs of blues and gospel recordings and a third disc of interviews and storytelling) and accompanying 120-page hardcover book edited by Ferris, was released to much acclaim in late 2018. Among the champions of the work were the late producer and composer Quincy Jones, who said the set “taps into the rich world of southern musicians, storytellers, and writers. Their beautiful voices touched my heart. Bill Ferris is a profound historian. I am his biggest fan!”

Last February, the set won Ferris two 2019 Grammy Awards: Best Historical Album and Best Liner Notes.

“I had no idea how important a Grammy Award was until I was nominated for one,” Ferris said. “People told me, ‘You don’t even have to win.’ Just having the nominations puts that word beside your name for the rest of time. We won two for ‘Voices of Mississippi.’ And that has turned my life upside down.”

Since the wins, “Voices of Mississippi” has spawned several off-shoot projects that continue to keep the veteran folklorist busy.

“We have a musical production slated next February for Lincoln Center in New York that features Mississippi musicians, some of whom are related to the artists I worked with,” he said.

He’s also working on a theatrical production inspired by the box set that the Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill will launch.

And the box set itself continues to be successful itself.

“The project has been reviewed literally all over the world,” he said, “and really went beyond anything I ever imagined possible with recordings by artists who are mostly totally unknown. But now they are known and they’re preserved for the rest of time because of those awards.”

But what excites Ferris most about the project, he said, is the 150-page book packaged with the music.

“I see this material as oral literature,” he said, “and you can now teach the poetry of the blues, of the gospel music, and look at the stories and literature that is the foundation for the great writers of Southern literature, like [William] Faulkner, Richard Wright, Thomas Wolfe, who built and anchored their own literary voices on the oral tradition. It was part of their childhood.”

‘The more things change...’

UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz, in announcing that Ferris would deliver the University’s 2019 Winter Commencement address, said, “Bill Ferris personifies Carolina’s culture of collaboration, bringing together anthropology, history, the arts, Southern studies, African American music and folklore to showcase narratives that have long been ignored, preserve history that some would prefer forgotten and in the process reveal traditions and stories that break down barriers between us.”

“I Am A Man,” A collection of Ferris’ photographs of the Civil Rights movement, taken between 1960 and 1970, will be published by the University Press of Mississippi early next year.

“Sadly,” Ferris said, “the French have a phrase — Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose — ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ The issues that I wrestled with as a young person — of race and segregation and violence that appear throughout the box set in music and stories — are sadly still very much a part of our life. They were often associated with Mississippi and the South in my lifetime. But today, it’s all over the country. One of the people I interviewed in the Delta said, ‘You know, in Mississippi they have a season for hunting duck and deer and quail, but for black people, it’s open season all year long. You can kill them anytime, and it’s legal.’”

“That sounds,” he said, “like harsh language focused on the state of Mississippi. But as we see today, it’s all over the nation, especially when young black men are killed, most recently for jogging while black. It’s just horrific. And this collection, in many ways, is a way of understanding the tragic flaw of race and racism in our nation, in our region, our state. You can make it as local as you want, or as broad as you want, but the issues that are dealt with in this music and the stories are very much alive and well today.”

“We thought Rev. King and the Civil Rights movement was moving us out of all that,” Ferris said. “The election of Barack Obama, they said, put us in a ‘post racial era,’ where race was no longer the driving force. But it seems almost as if it’s gone the other way. So I feel like it’s, again, one more reason to understand the connections in the human voice. The songs and stories chronicle issues that are central to our experiences today and probably will be with us for many more generations.”

‘A powerhouse’

Tommy Edwards, the well-known Pittsboro bluegrass musician and founding member of The Bluegrass Experience, met Ferris when Ferris joined the faculty at UNC in 2002, introduced by their mutual friend, author John Shelton Reed.

Reed brought Ferris with him to Siler City one weekend to hear the Bluegrass Experience and Reed and Ferris ended up joining the band on stage to help sing a few songs, Edwards recalled. The two became friends and Edwards spoke — and played guitar, banjo and mandolin — for Ferris’ students a few times.

“He’s just a great guy,” Edwards said of his friend. “What a cheerleader for folk music and traditional music and traditional arts like pottery. He’s such a warm and gregarious and knowledgeable person. One of the things he did that’s so important was going back to Mississippi and the Delta and finding those old blues musicians and interviewing them, taking their pictures and recording their music and preserving what they’ve done, because a lot of them weren’t recording stars or people who had a lot of their music available to the public. I think it’s helped bridge some of the racial divide by him going to the musicians — most of whom were black — and getting their music and their stories out so people could see what they had been through and what they had to do to be able to make music.”

“Voices of Mississippi” is important, too, Ferris said, in that it “connects the dots” of his expansive career, presenting “the whole American South through the lens of these voices, some of whom are highly educated literary figures, painters, others who are coming exclusively out of the oral tradition of the work camps, penitentiaries, the mule traders calling horses and mules. It’s a taste of everything. I just keep digging in the same garden year after year, and it’s a very rich garden.”

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at rigsbee@chathamnr.com.

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