Interview with Dr. William R. Ferris, one of the foremost American authors and scholars of Southern Art

"My hope for the future is that blues will continue to burn brightly as an inspiration for students, artists, and writers. My hope is that the music will continue to shape our lives and our understanding of what is beautiful and true in life."

William Ferris: A Southern Gentleman

Dr. William R. Ferris is considered one of the foremost American authors and scholars of Southern Art. He is the former chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1942, Ferris was also the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, and is the co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

Ferris received his B.A. in English Literature from Davidson College in 1964, an M.A. in English Literature from Northwestern University in 1965, and a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. Dr. Ferris’s scholarship has focused on southern African American folklore and culture through a variety of media, including print, sound, film, and photography. Having taught at Jackson State University, Yale University, and the University of Mississippi, he was appointed in 1997 by President Bill Clinton to be chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities, a post held by Ferris for four years. Ferris was vital in the efforts of NEH to broaden public awareness of the humanities.

Ferris is the author of ten books, including “You Live and Learn, Then You Die and Forget It All” and his most recent work, “Give My Poor Heart Ease” which was published in November 2009. He is the recipient of the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities, and has been honored by the Blues Hall of Fame for his book entitled “Blues from the Delta” which was deemed as one of the “Classics of Blues Literature.” Ferris is a member of the History Department faculty and currently serves as the Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues culture and what does the “Blues” mean to you?

I learn that blues is a music designed for survival. It helps both the singer and the listener learn to survive in a world that is often hostile and uncertain. The blues is like an old friend who extends a hand of help. That hand leads the listener out of trouble.

How important was music in your life?

Music is absolutely essential in my life. I cannot live without it. I love the blues of B.B. King as deeply as I love the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach. Music allows me to connect to life on a deeper level, to feel and experience the world with a greater sensitivity.

How does Southern culture and music affect your mood and inspiration?

Southern culture and its music are the waters in which I swim. They shape my life in ways that are often unconscious, unspoken influences. The people and the places of the American South, and the music associated with them, are the focus of my life’s work. My books, my classroom teaching, and my daily conversations all focus on Southern culture and music. If you take those worlds away, I would not exist as the person I know.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues?

Two musicians who taught me important secrets about the blues are James “Son Ford” Thomas and B.B. King. James Thomas explained to me that the blues are a “deep study.” To play and fully understand them requires a lifetime commitment.

When I asked B.B. King where the blues were born, he told me, “The birth of the blues, like the birth of life on the floor of the ocean, is a mystery.”

What is the best advice ever given you?

My father was a farmer who gave me the best advice ever when he told me, “You can learn a lesson from every person you meet in life.”

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

The best moment in my career was my discover of the field of folklore. Over breakfast one morning in Dublin, Ireland, I complained to folklorist and literary scholar Francis Utley that my current field of English Literature would not allow me to study blues. Utley replied, “You should consider studying folklore where the study of blues is welcomed.” That conversation changed my life and launched my career as a student of blues and Southern culture.

The worst moment of my career was when my brother Grey Ferris died. He was my best friend, and we spoke either on the phone or in person each morning about the work he did as a farmer, and my own work as a scholar and teacher. Grey loved to say, “When you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know he had help getting there.”  Grey helped me get to the top of the fence post where I sit.

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

Each period of my life is the most interesting. Today, at the age of seventy-one, I feel challenged and excited to reconnect to the blues and to southern writers and artists I have known through my two recent books Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues and The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. My next book will feature my photographs of the South and will draw from over 75,000 images I have taken since 1950.  Many of these images deal with blues and southern music.

 

You have come to know great bluesmen. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

My introduction to James “Son Ford” Thomas was memorable.  In 1967, I asked a black man in Leland, Mississippi, if there were any blues singers who lived there. He told me, “You should go meet Son Thomas.  He sings the blues, and he lives over in the Black Dog neighborhood.” When I found Mr. Thomas’s house and knocked on the door, his wife Christine opened it and asked, “What do you want?” I replied, “I am looking for James Thomas.” She replied, “He does not live here.” As I turned to leave, she asked, “What do you want with him?” I said, “I am writing a book on the blues, and I want to put him in it.” She said, “He will be back in an hour. You can wait for him here on the porch.”

Which memory makes you smile?

One special memory is when B.B. King received his honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Yale University. It was a special moment to see the blues and its greatest musician recognized by the American academy. B.B. King’s dream has been to see the blues studied within classrooms from kindergarten to the university, a dream that today has become a reality. King’s gift of his record collection to the University of Mississippi laid the foundation for its Blues Archive. Today students and scholars from throughout the world visit the archive to study the blues. And the B.B. King Blues Museum in King’s home of Indianola, Mississippi, is a magnificent facility that is heavily visited by visitors from throughout the world who love both the blues and B.B. King.

Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

One especially wonderful memory was my visit with James “Son Ford” Thomas on December 27, 1980, in Dallas, Texas at the Modern Language Society’s annual meeting, where I spoke about the blues and Mr. Thomas performed. During the program I noticed a face in the front row that I thought I recognized but could not identify. The person was clearly enjoying the program. When it ended, he introduced himself as Allen Ginsberg and asked if he might visit with Mr. Thomas in his room at the hotel. We went to Ginsberg’s room where for several hours he and Thomas sang blues together and discussed the meaning of the blues. At the end of our visit, Ginsberg turned to me and said, “He is your guru, isn’t he?”  I answered, “Yes, he is.” I published that conversation and photographs of our visit in an article “Trading Verses
 James “Son Ford” Thomas and Allen Ginsberg” that appeared in Southern Cultures (Spring, 2013), pp. 53-60.

What do you miss most nowadays from the old days of Southern folklore?

What I miss most is not having the time to do field work--to record, photograph, and film--as I did in the sixties in the Mississippi Delta.  My life has become busier, and the demands on my time are different. The intense experience of hearing blues played by James Thomas in the home of Shelby “Poppa Jazz” Brown in Kent’s Alley in Leland, Mississippi, is an experience that I know will not be repeated. That experience was an epiphany that changed my life in a powerful, enduring way. Since it happened, my work as a writer, scholar, and teacher has been devoted to sharing that world with others. (Photo by © Hester Magnuson, The Storied South)

How has changed over the years?

As the French say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Both blues and life for the black community have changed dramatically during my lifetime.  When I made my recordings, photographs, and films in the late sixties, blues were considered an embarrassment by white Mississippians and were given little public recognition.  Today—fifty-five years later--the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, the Mississippi Blues Trail, numerous annual blues festivals, and the Blues Archive and Living Blues magazine at the University of Mississippi are major international resources for the music that are based in the state. 

But the familiar, old issues of poverty, lack of education, and inadequate health care continue to plague the black community in Mississippi.  The title of former Mississippi Governor William Winter’s 1996 Southern Growth Policies Board report--Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go --applies equally well to the state of the blues and the black community in Mississippi today.

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be Bluesman?

A bluesman is more than simply a musician. He is also a voice for his people, a performer whose music expresses their suffering, their joy, their inner soul. When he sings, he transports his audience to places that are familiar, deeply personal worlds. Like the African Griot, he sings a tale that captures the history of his people in a deep, emotional way. The tragic history of families, whose ancestors were brought to this country as slaves, echoes in a powerful way within the blues.

"The blues is like an old friend who extends a hand of help. That hand leads the listener out of trouble."

What's the legacy of Blues in the world culture and civilization?

The legacy of Blues in the world culture and civilization is that the music has become a universal art form. Today blues is recognized and loved throughout the world. Its poetry inspires blues poems by poets like Langston Hughes and Alice Walker.  The music also inspired blues novels like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, as well as art by Romare Bearden. 

Blues is also the foundation for modern musical forms such as country music, jazz, gospel, rock and roll, rap, and hip-hop.  If we take away blues, these musics would not exist as we know them today.

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

My hope for the future is that blues will continue to burn brightly as an inspiration for students, artists, and writers. My hope is that the music will continue to shape our lives and our understanding of what is beautiful and true in life.

My fear is that we will lose contact with blues as an anchor for our soul, that we will forget the music that holds the key to our survival.

What's been your experience as educator?

As an educator, I feel I am privileged to work with young people.  In my classes I teach them, and I also learn from them. Each year I teach classes on “Southern Music” and on “Southern Literature and the Oral Tradition”, and each year I learn from my students. The classroom allows for an intellectual and spiritual exchange that is truly a blessing for me. My greatest pride is to see how my students discover themselves through the study of folklore and blues in ways that are enduring.

"The blues began in the South where it was born from slave spirituals and work chants that were sung on plantations in the region." Photo © by William Ferris

Which is the relationship southern folklore and new generation?

The relationship between southern folklore and the new generation is critical. As the traditional rural worlds of the American South change in increasingly dramatic ways, southerners find themselves living in urban, high-rise buildings as they dream of the rural worlds that shaped their ancestors. Southern folklore provides an important link between these urban and rural worlds that gives southerners a sense of connection with their roots. We see this attraction to roots in southern music in the work of bands like the North Mississippi All Stars who are strongly influenced by rural fife and drum music and the bottleneck blues guitar style of Mississippi Fred McDowell in their recordings.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Blues circuits?

I just spent ten days in France doing signings and programs in Calais, Lille, and Paris related to the release of the French edition of my book Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues under the name Les Voix du Mississippi. Two photographs of the French edition are attached above that you will appreciate. I enjoyed meeting many French blues fans during our visit and was struck by their love for the blues and their deep knowledge of the music. When asked by a Frenchman how the music has changed since I recorded blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta in the sixties, I said it was dangerous for a white person to visit in the homes of black families in the sixties.  But today you might see busloads of French and other international visitors who travel thousands of miles to meet blues artists and hear them perform. We all laughed at that welcome change in the blues world.

What are the lines that connect the Gospel, Folk, Country with the Jazz, Soul and continue to Zydeco and Blues?

These southern musics are share important ties to the southern “sense of place”, the strong regional connection to community and to family that southerners hold sacred. Places like Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, Muscle Schoals, and Southern Louisiana produce music that has a distinctive sound, a sound that is embraced with pride by families who live there. Blues is also a familiar sound that musicians who perform each of these traditions understand, and embrace.

"My greatest pride is to see how my students discover themselves through the study of folklore and blues in ways that are enduring."

William Ferris and Larry Hoffman at Chicago Blues Festival 2010.  Photo © by Gerald Tomko

Why all in case of blues started at south and what was the journey to Chicago, 60s UK, Psychedelic era and beyond?

The blues began in the South where it was born from slave spirituals and work chants that were sung on plantations in the region. After the Civil War, musicians were free to travel and to share their music with other performers. The theme of travel is important in the blues, as seen in verses like, “If anybody ask you who made up this song, tell them it was Huddie Ledbetter, done been here and gone.”  The ability to move was an essential part of a newfound freedom for black musicians and for black families. During the twentieth century, Mississippi Delta families moved north to Memphis, St. Louis, and finally Chicago, where the country blues was transformed into the new sound of Chicago urban blues. Acoustic guitars were replaced by electric guitars, and an important new sound of amplified music was heard in clubs on the South Side and West Side of Chicago.

In the sixties, the folk revival embraced blues artists who performed at the Newport Folk Festival and at other festivals around the nation.  British groups like the Beetles and the Rolling Stones were inspired by B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf. Since that time blues have been an essential sound for the Psychedelic era and beyond.

Where would you really wanna go via a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in?

I would like to stay where I am because I love teaching students whom I admire and from whom I learn. Many of my students--like Reed Turchi and Michael Taylor—are musicians whose work I follow with special pride. My library of books, CDs and DVDs will also keep me happy.

My two recent books Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues and The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists feature bluesmen, writers, and artists who are my heroes.  I keep these books near me as a reminder of the people and places that I love deeply. These are people who inspired my journey as a folklorist and my study of the blues.  

"I love the blues of B.B. King as deeply as I love the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach. Music allows me to connect to life on a deeper level, to feel and experience the world with a greater sensitivity." Photo © by William Ferris

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