To hear Bill Ferris, the renowned folklorist and senior associate director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South, discuss his life’s work is to listen to maps being drawn in real time. As he discusses everything from blues singers and mule traders to the writing of Alice Walker, Ferris illuminates the hidden threads that connect the songs, stories, and culture of the South. The place closest to Ferris’s heart, however, has always been his home state of Mississippi.
This week, the Atlanta-based label Dust-to-Digital releases Voices of Mississippi, a four-disc box set of music, interview, and film recordings conducted throughout Ferris’s illustrious career. It serves as a convenient analog for almost any conversation you could have with Ferris: the CDs deliver a rainbow of different voices and musical styles, previously unreleased films bring some of these characters to life, and a book includes full transcripts and additional notes about the content of the discs. It’s a perfect portal into the variegatedand complicatedcultural landscape of the South.
From his Chapel Hill office, Ferris discussed the new collection and the persistent global appeal of the South.
INDY: You’ve got such a huge archive of a lifetime of multimedia recordings. Where did you start with trying to figure out what you wanted to include with this set?
BILL FERRIS: It really started about a decade ago with a conversation with Lance and April Ledbetter, whose work I have long admired. They said they were interested in putting a box set of my work together, and I said I would be thrilled. It was much bigger than I think anyone, including me, anticipated. We went through several teams of people. People listened to everything there. We had everything transferred to digital platforms.
They went through all the music and voice recordings and films, and they winnowed it down to a selection of musicblues and sacred musicand then of storytelling and narrative. We added to that unreleased films that are on a DVD.
It’s wonderful to live this long and see things you thought would always be on a dusty shelf, rarely known, now very accessible to anyone. The box set stands with a foot in both campsyou have the physical artifact of the box with the book and the CDs and DVD, but underneath those discs is a little piece of paper with a code that allows you to download the entire project into whatever device you want to use.
Speaking of some of those pieces, there’s a full disc of storytelling. Why was that something you wanted to include instead of focusing on music only?
We tend to work in boxes or in silos, intellectually. Folklorists have three boxes. There’s music, storytelling, and material culturethe quilts, the folk art. I’ve tried to work across those. At different points, I’ve been more focused on music or storytelling or art. But I was an aspiring writerI wrote poetry, fiction, and drama when I was a student in the sixties. I studied literature and I teach Southern literature and the oral tradition.
In my class, I use writers like Lee Smith and Randall Kenan and Daniel Wallace, as well as William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, and I look at how those writers draw on music and storytelling to craft works of fiction. The storytelling CD draws on both the folk voices of folk tales as well as the writers whom I interviewed and photographed and filmed in the same way as a documentary approach. I see those two as joined at the hip.
I’ve known music fans who have expressed an aversion to gospel music because they don’t connect with some of its religious messages. What are your thoughts on the appeal of gospel music to nonbelievers?
I grew up in the Presbyterian church, but I’m a nonbeliever. I love gospel music because it’s a work of art. It’s, aesthetically, a very beautiful sound. The Staple Singers sing not just about religion, they sing about civil rights. Mahalia Jackson was part of Martin Luther King’s foundation, musically. He would call her before he was going on a march.
Being religious, to my mind, has very little to do with whether or not you like gospel music. It should be, do you like that sound? Whether it’s a cappella singing in a little rural church or the sounds of The Staple Singers. Aretha Franklina secular soul singer who grew up in the church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. He was from Clarksdale, Mississippi, also the home of Sam Cooke. Those worlds are interconnected. That gospel soundthe churchy sound of chords and Ray Charles and othersis a foundation for secular music.
So much of your work is built from meaningful, deep personal relationships with people. How did that get to be such a big part of what you do?
I think it goes back to the farm where I grew up, which was isolated. My family was the only white family there. I played with children my age, and it was a community that was separate. When I was four or five, a lady named Mary Gordon, who took care of me, would take me each first Sunday to this little black church on the farm, Rose Hill Church. I learned the hymns and later realized there were no hymnals. I realized that when those families were gone, the music would disappear.
When I went to college and then to graduate school, I felt that I was kind of being pulled away from those roots and I did not want that to happen. Discovering folklore was my way of reconnecting and bonding with people. In my field work, I began looking for blues singers, but when I found musicians, they were people. To me, the music was part of a deeper life of an individual, and it expressed his or her life in ways that required you to go deeper.
What you’re really trying to do is capture the story, the narrative of a personal life within the voice of that person. Sometimes it’s just a one-hour visit, sometimes it’s a hundred hours of many years of listening, like with Ray Lum and James Thomas.
But it’s always that person that I wanted people to contact in their relationships. That’s why I was drawn to photography and film as well as sound recordings, to show you who you’re hearing and to set them in the context of the juke joint or the church or the auction barnto give you a total immersion within the life of that person.
The storytelling disc ends with you and James “Son Ford” Thomas, who features pretty prominently across the set, walking through a cemetery and talking with each other. It ends with you both wondering if there’s going to be a black president some day. What made you want to conclude it there?
I can’t take credit for where that is. That was Scott Barretta and April and Lance’s decision about how to compile it. To me, it’s appropriate because of my long and important relationship with him. But it’s also important because it deals with an issue of inequality and race that both he and I felt deeply about, that sadly lingers today.
He worked, as a young man, as a gravedigger. He was familiar with the dead, and the cemetery was like his second home. As we walked through this cemetery in New Haven, Connecticutthis was during one of his visits to my students at Yalehe said, “You know, when I see these expensive, beautiful monuments for white people, it makes me wonder why white people spend so much on flowers and monuments for the dead, when there are people across the street that are hungry and don’t have enough to feed their children.” Then he said, “When I die, no one will remember me. They’ll remember you, Bill.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “They’ll put a little tin marker up, and in a few months or a few years later, it’ll be gone and I’ll be forgotten. But you will have a monument made out of stone that will last, because you’ve got money.”
That’s a conversation that distills a lot of what led me to do these recordings. I saw them as a political act in the sixties. To me, recording the voices of poor people who often would say, “If I tell you this, will you promise to put it out there and let people know what it was like for us down here?” And I said, “I promise you.” My books are about that, and this box set is about it. It’s giving voice to the voiceless.
As Faulkner once said, the goal of every writer is to etch their mark on the face of oblivion. Well, these voices are a mark on the face of oblivion, for James Thomas, for B.B. King, for Ray Lum, for Eudora Welty, Alice Walker. All of their voices, to me, have a gentle beauty that reminds me of my grandmother. You feel nurtured and back home when you feel these voices. You don’t have to be from Mississippi or even Americapeople from all over the globe love this music, love the voices, and are hungry for it.
What do you feel like we still have to learn from these voices?
Everyone we meet in the course of a day has a story, a really important story, and we just touch the very top of a deep well of information, of knowledge. As folklorists, we go a little deeper, and some people deeper than others. If we could teach this approach to other peoplewhen you check out of the grocery store, or mail a package, you do a transaction that really has very little human exchange. But that’s another human being you’re dealing with. Do you say, “How are you doing today? Where are you from?” You begin to kind of open a door of communication. That’s a way of humanizing life and enriching life.
If you have an iPhone, you can do finer recordings and films than I could do with much more expensive equipment. We all have the capacity to do this kind of work if we want to.