'The eminent Southerner:' Chatham’s Bill Ferris and voices of the South

BY Meredith Radford, UNC Media Hub
Posted 5/12/21

Through this lifelong passion, author, photographer, videographer and folklorist Ferris became a pioneer in the field of Southern Studies, using ever changing technology to preserve and share the diverse culture of the South with the nation and the world.

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'The eminent Southerner:' Chatham’s Bill Ferris and voices of the South

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Bill Ferris went to a Black church that wasn’t too far from his family’s home in rural Mississippi on the first Sunday of every month. He could hear the worship music coming across the open field.

“It was very alluring,” Ferris, now a Chatham County resident, said. “And then when I got to sit in the pews it was totally enveloping.”

He grew to love spirituals and sermons that came only from the minds of the people worshiping. There were no hymnals or written music. When the families disappeared, so did the songs.

“It was an emotional kind of physicality of sound,” Ferris said. “And I just wanted to hang onto that.”

Ferris started bringing a camera and a recording device to church with him, keeping track of the people and the voices he came across.

“He wanted to make sure that those wouldn’t get lost,” his daughter, Virginia Ferris, said. “Documenting them and then preserving them is kind of like an act of love for someone like my dad.”

Oral traditions are especially fragile.

“I respected and wanted to honor those lives in ways that recordings would do,” Ferris said.

Through this lifelong passion, author, photographer, videographer and folklorist Ferris became a pioneer in the field of Southern Studies, using ever changing technology to preserve and share the diverse culture of the South with the nation and the world.

An old African proverb says, “when an old man or woman dies, a library burns to the ground.”

“I’ve spent my life trying to preserve those libraries,” Ferris said.

Born in 1942, Ferris grew up on a working farm 15 miles southeast of Vicksburg, Mississippi. It was an isolated piece of world, a gravel road, his was the only white family on the farm among a number of black families.

“I didn’t know what was unusual,” he said. “I mean it was the world I had at my door.”

The terms “culture” and “the American South” weren’t seen as synonymous when Ferris was growing up.

“The whole study of the South was not a field when I started my career,” he said. “I was trying to understand who I was as a person.”

He loved Southern writers and musicians. He’d gained an interest in photography and film. But those were disconnected resources.

As a teenager, Ferris went to a preparatory school, Brooks School, in North Andover, Massachusetts, leaving the South.

“The more you continued in education, the further it pulled you from your roots, and I didn’t want to give that up,” Ferris said. “I knew there were people smarter than I who were still there because they didn’t have the advantages I had.”

He attended Davidson College, where he became involved in Civil Rights and Vietnam.

“I was very much aware of race as a factor in what was going on around me,” Ferris said, “And I felt a sense of privilege and responsibility as a white person in college.”

He started to see the links between the voices he recorded as a child and the Civil Rights Movement.

“I felt it was a political act to capture these stories and to record them for history,” Ferris said.

At the time, he didn’t know of a pathway to pursue his passion for preserving Southern culture in the academic world.

By accident, he discovered the field of folklore. He received a master’s in English Literature from Northwestern University. When he met with his Ph.D advisor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kenneth Goldstein, he took a box of his photos and tapes.

“Dr. Goldstein, is this the kind of work I can do here?” Ferris asked.

Goldstein looked at the box and smiled.

“That, my boy, will be your dissertation,” Ferris recalls Goldstein saying.

Ferris wrote on blues and storytelling in the Mississippi Delta.

“I’ve been happy ever since,” Ferris said. “He allowed me to do what I like and loved and to make that a career.”

After stints teaching at Jackson State University and Yale, Ferris was named the first director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

“We thought Southern Culture was an oxymoron,” wrote one reviewer of the center.

“Some people thought it was a wasteland,” Ferris said.

At the time, he wrote that it was exploding with writers, musicians and artists. Ferris co-edited The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, a controversial but successful book that sold more than a million copies that was published by The University of North Carolina Press.

“Doing the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture forced us to look at a breadth of knowledge that we couldn’t have imagined when we started,” Ferris said.

He and his wife, Marcie Ferris, came to teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2002.

When Chancellor James Moeser asked Ferris to come teach at UNC, he offered to tell him a little bit about the school.

You don’t have to explain anything, Ferris said; he’d love to come to UNC.

“Not only is it a great university but it’s where the study of the South began and where the largest collections on the south in the world are housed,” Ferris said. “By that time, I knew UNC intimately and my career was linked with the university in many ways.”

Moeser said it was the easiest sale he ever made.

“It was a marriage made in heaven,” Moeser said. “He’s an eminent Southerner.”

Jay Heinz, who was working at UNC-Chapel Hill when he met Ferris, went down to Ferris’ classroom to help him with a projector one day. He also sat in on the class.

“It was so fascinating that I asked him if I could just sit in on every class that he had,” Heinz said. “And I did, for the rest of the semester.”

“Bill is the perfect, positive gateway drug for anybody in academia because it looks so beautiful and wonderful,” said Tom Rankin, professor and director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and a colleague of Ferris’.

Ferris and his wife retired in two years ago. Their archives are housed in Wilson Library on UNC’s campus.

Dust to Digital, a record company that pioneered the digitization of analog recordings, approached Ferris to produce a box set of his extensive work.

“None of us knew what lay ahead,” Ferris said.

It took them 10 years to go through his archive. The box set had three CDs of blues, religious music and spoken word, along with a DVD of Ferris’ documentary films and a book that includes complete transcriptions of all the music and stories in the set.

“These voices are oral literature, so as you listen to a song or a story you can follow the language,” Ferris said.

When Ferris was doing his folklore work, often he’d record Black families and musicians, and they would ask, “If I tell you this, do you promise to put it out there like it is? And let people know what we’ve been through?”

“You have my promise,” Ferris would say.

Ferris said the box set, “Voices of Mississippi,” is the fulfillment of that promise to tell the truth.

When “Voices of Mississippi” was released in 2018, it was nominated for a Grammy for best historical album and best liner notes. It won in both categories.

“I know now, given the digitization, given the recognition of Grammy awards, that these are voices who will never be forgotten,” Ferris said.

He said his next project will be a big book of his own photographs, spanning from his childhood in Mississippi to the present.

“Often when you look back, some of the photographs that are most important are not ones you thought ‘well this is going to be a prize-winning photograph,’” Ferris said. “You simply take it and do it as well as you can and then later, I’m looking at photographs from the ‘50s on and many of my best ones are the earliest ones.”

Virginia Ferris inherited his instinct to constantly take photos. She is an archivist, so her career is to document and preserve evidence of the past.

“That definitely is a huge inheritance from his passions and his example,” Virginia Ferris said.

Ferris said he thinks he’ll work until he drops.

“It’s not work, I love it and I love to help people,” he said. “I’m at a stage where I can introduce people that I think may help my students, or vice versa.

Editor’s note: This story was provided and produced by Media Hub, a project of students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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