Native blues historian offers Southern insight

Native blues historian offers Southern insight
April 28, 2010
By Billy Howell
The Press Register

Native Mississippian Bill Ferris returned to the Delta during Clarksdale’s 2010 Juke Joint Festival to share readings and conversations the author documented in his most recent book, Give My Poor Heart Ease.

Ferris read excerpts from his book, presented a visual presentation including old and rare photographs and answered questions from the audience at the Delta Blues Museum (DBM). DBM director Shelley Ritter studied under Ferris while at Ole Miss.

“Bill helped me recognize the incredible artistic talent that Mississippi produces – music, literary and visual,” Ritter said about her former professor. “While a student of his, I was introduced to the Delta Blues Museum. At that time, the museum was located in the Carnegie Library and Sid Graves was the director of both the museum and the library.

“The Muddy Waters’ cabin was still out at Stovall. At that time the blues stops consisted of the Stackhouse, the Rivermont, and Wade Walton's Barbershop, among others. It is very special to be here at the museum and work with Bill again."

“Throughout my life, I have traveled with a camera and tape recorder and tried to capture the spoken word in all its mystery and beauty through tales such as the ones presented in this book, tales that are both moving and chilling,” Ferris wrote about Give My Poor Heart Ease.

Ferris strove to familiarize the reader with the human condition—full of pain, joy, gritty living and latent hope--expressed by well-known and not-as-widely-known blues musicians from the Mississippi Delta.

“By featuring their voices firsthand in this book, I attempt to give the reader the opportunity to hear, from the inside as much as possible, voices, stories, and music that are the roots of the blues,” Ferris wrote.

Ferris counts B. B. King a close friend, even having him lecture and speak to his students at Yale University.

“B. [Ferris’ name for King] is the greatest blues artist of all times,” Ferris said. “He is in his 80’s and still travels on the road over 200 days per year.”

King was the baccalaureate speaker at Yale one year. When King told the graduates that he was not a speaker, the crowd intoned, “Just bring Lucille [his famous guitar].”

Ferris’ distinguished career has spanned almost 40 years. He has received accolades as an author, filmmaker, academician, and folklorist. After receiving a Master’s and Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, he began teaching at Jackson State University in 1970.

After his stint at Jackson State University, Ferris taught at Yale University for the next seven years before moving to Oxford where he headed up the Center for the Study of Southern Culture on the campus of the University of Mississippi.

The past chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities now teaches courses in southern literature, oral tradition and Southern music at the University of North Carolina, and has been labeled by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the Top Ten professors in the United States.

Ferris spent much of the 1960’s and 1970’s documenting the seldom heard voices of fellow Mississippians who lived and played the blues, spending time living with and interviewing blues musicians on the plantations where they lived—often at great risk to himself and the families of those being interviewed.

“It was not safe in the 60’s to stay outside the black community,” Ferris said. “When I was in there I never saw whites.”

His book, Blues from the Delta, was published in 1971, and according to Ferris was written more in a “white scholar talking about music” format, than his new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease, which tells stories in the voice of “black speakers describing their lives and how music shaped their worlds.”

Ferris told the crowd at the DBM that every time an old man dies, a library dies with him.

“I began to realize as the seasons changed there was a cycle of life…and the wonderful circle of stories that circulated around those events and the people there were truly living libraries,” Ferris told the crowd at the DBM.

Many noteworthy Mississippians and lovers of the blues and Southern culture have high praise for Ferris’ book.

“Like Bill Ferris, I grew up in Mississippi,” wrote Morgan Freeman. “My life is continually shaped by the blues. This book captures those rich voices so well.”

“I have only begun to dig into this trove of American culture…,” wrote T Bone Burnett, famous songwriter, musician and producer. “This book, these films and this music are filled with the history of both blues and American music. These powerful voices use music to rise above and to survive tragedy, and their lives are an inspiration.”

Ferris does not appear to have an axe to grind in his books and stories written about the men and women who have chronicled rural Delta life through music and stories. He aptly and faithfully records their tales in their own unique vernacular—not void of hope and thankfulness.

“. . . If the unhealed wound of injustice is everywhere present in these stories, many of the people telling them, like Ferris himself, have refused to see their lives reduced to race and stubbornly resist despair,”— Harper's Magazine.

Ferris notes his belief that the world of the blues has changed significantly over the past four decades.

“Looking back on this work which was done in the Sixties, I am struck by how the blues world has changed during the past 40 years,” wrote Ferris. “Today the blues are a respected part of American music, and educational, museum, and performance venues now exist in many of the places featured in this book, a change that neither I nor the artists whom I recorded could have imagined at the time.”
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