Voices Of Mississippi ft. William Ferris, Cedric Burnside, Shardé Thomas, and Luther & Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars

Memorial Hall, Carolina Performing Arts, Chapel Hill  |  Wednesday, April 6  |  7:30 pm, $15-$40

William Ferris’s reputation and résumé make him the preeminent scholar of folklore and the American South.

He founded the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, and spent decades at the Center for the Study of the American South here at UNC-Chapel Hill. He chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities for four years. He even won a Grammy for Voices of Mississippi, the 2018 box set that collected his life’s work.

Still, Ferris, who is 80, is far from done yet. He’s spent the last two years collaborating on a live adaptation of Voices of Mississippi, combining his sound recordings, photographs, and documentary footage with original music performed by the descendants of the Mississippians with whom he worked in the 1960s and ’70s.

After a hometown debut in Oxford, followed by four shows at Lincoln Center in New York City, the multimedia Voices of Mississippi event comes to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall soon, courtesy of Carolina Performing Arts.

“Being here at UNC is special for me,” Ferris told INDY Week over the phone on a recent Tuesday morning. “My archive is here. This is the mother lode of what I do as a teacher and scholar.”

The following conversation with Ferris about the work has been edited for length and clarity. A shorter version of this conversation is in print this week. 

What have you learned from the first five Voices of Mississippi live performances?

We’ve never done anything quite like this before. The vision was to have a multimedia performance intersecting with live music, photography, sound recordings, and documentary film. Essentially, it connects the work that I did in the ‘60s and ’70s with musicians and writers in Mississippi and their grandchildren, some of whom, like Cedric Burnside and Shardé Thomas, are actually performing in the show. So you have a strong sense of tradition within the voices that are being heard today, both on stage and in our nation.

The Black Lives Matter movement has in many ways defined the impact of this show in ways that we could never have anticipated. But the power of the music was what struck everyone in Oxford and more recently at Lincoln Center. We had sellout crowds for all four shows, and the spontaneity of the show evolved with each performance. I think it should be a really historic moment here in Memorial Hall.

What motivated you to start recording the Voices of Mississippi as a young man? And what helped you realize that it could eventually be a vocation?

It started as a young child, when I was 4 or 5 years old, when a Black lady named Mary Gordon would take me on Sundays to Rose Hill Church—basically to get me out of the house. I learned to sing the hymns, but as I grew older, I realized that there were no hymnals in the church. All the music was sung from memory, meaning that when those families were no longer there, the music would stop.

So I began to record, photograph, and later film the church as a way of preserving that very personal experience. Then, in the ‘60s, when I was involved with civil rights and a conscientious objector to Vietnam, and I began to see this world and recording it as a political act. These were voices that had been left out of history—there were no books that captured their lives. At Northwestern University, the English department told me I could not study this music as literature. But I had a fellowship from the Rotary Foundation at Trinity College at Dublin, Ireland, and over breakfast one day I met a visiting folklorist named Francis Utley.

He was the chairman of the English department at Ohio State, and I complained to him that English departments were not open enough to allow me to study the oral tradition and literature of these voices that I thought should be studied alongside our writers. He smiled and said, “You should be in folklore.” And I said, “What is that?” That changed my life, that morning over breakfast in Ireland. I applied and was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, and when I arrived in the fall, I met my advisor, Kenneth Goldstein. I brought a box of my tape recordings and photographs and said, “Dr. Goldstein, can I continue to do this work here?” He smiled and said, “That, my boy, will be your dissertation.” The work I’d been doing as a sort of instinctive love now had an academic foundation that gave it legitimacy.

In addition to recording music, you committed yourself to collecting everyday stories, jokes, asides, and explanations. How important is that?

William Ferris: It’s central. Everyday things, the spoken words that pass that we barely notice—what the French call “la vie de quotidienne”—are the foundation of life itself. They’re also the foundation of our region’s literary achievement and the backbone of music in the 20th and 21st centuries. Those everyday voices are where writers like Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe found their inspiration. For me, seeing these voices not only recorded but transcribed in the Voices of Mississippi book was a major step. Ironically, it’s very rare that you can read the text of music and stories and feel like you can see the quality of language as you would in a novel or a short story. This is the wellspring of our language as Southerners and as Americans.

You always placed your subjects in their appropriate social and cultural contexts. But does the context of the farm you grew up on in rural Mississippi feel long gone to you today?

William Ferris: Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Faulkner talked about the old truths and verities that you learn, whether it’s on a farm, in a ghetto, or in Chapel Hill and Durham. Growing up, you learn the basics, and those truths are imparted in childhood from older generations with whom we are privileged to live. Alex Haley referred to it as, “You were raised right.” You were taught to deal with life. Those are lessons that in the South are very important. You learn politeness, to respect elders, to define and understand the society in which you live so that you can survive. Black Lives Matter has underscored the dangers that young Black men used to face and continue to face, not only in the region but in the nation itself.

Our nation is moving from a dominant white male culture to a much more diverse culture that reflects the world. And these Voices of Mississippi—the book, the album, and the concert—are a celebration of the life and culture in which we live. They’re also a kind of parameter for building bridges across the troubled waters of race, gender, and class, along with an affirmation that earlier generations will not be forgotten but will continue to live and speak to us.

What about the voices of prisoners you recorded at Parchman Penitentiary in the ‘60s? What still tell you, particularly when it comes to understanding the carceral state that disproportionately affects Black people?

William Ferris: The human spirit always survives, in spite of the conditions in a place like Parchman. For many Black Mississippians, Parchman didn’t end at the gates of that prison. I was told, “We are always in prison, whether it’s as an inmate or here, outside those gates.” They felt like they were under surveillance and restricted in ways that resemble the prison. Parchman was a learning experience for me. The ability to endure and survive as inmates was something that I marveled at. Musicians in the South like BB King and Johnny Cash were drawn to prisons because they identified with the idea that there but for the grace of God go I.

They recorded some of their greatest albums inside of prisons, in what were dangerous worlds. But the inmates totally identified with the blues and country music. That’s the working man’s music, and when you look at who’s serving time in those prisons, it’s poor kids who ended up there and were trying to survive.

Where do you see folklore going in the future? How will today’s voices speak to us tomorrow?

William Ferris: I’m retired [from the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill], but I’m still involved with the students. And they are on a mission. They come here essentially breaking out of the traditional confinement of academia, seeing the field of folklore as a liberating body of knowledge that empowers you to find your dream. Some students are successful reformers, some are record producers, some are documentary filmmakers, and some are working with labor projects.

There’s a wide variety. But all of these students cut to the quick. They go deep into the music, the food, and the lives of the people with whom they work. They are also helping elevate the voices of what we might think of as the New South: the diverse Hispanic and Asian families who were not here in the ‘60s. They’re taking this rich body of history and culture and carrying it on in exciting new ways, whether they’re Vietnamese fishermen on the Gulf Coast transforming the shrimp industry, or Indian and Native American families transforming the face of foodways here in North Carolina from traditional barbecue and hush puppies to a whole new taste of the state.

A lot of work is being done to study those worlds by UNC’s folklore students and the Southern Folklife Collection. It’s the perfect place to find a home within the academy that allows you to also work in the real world—the dynamic, changing world around us that captures the heart of our culture as North Carolinians and as Southerners.

In the Voices of Mississippi book, you mention being driven by an “interest in understanding this different world.” How critical is that kind of empathy in today’s polarized America?

 It’s absolutely critical for the future of our nation that we build these bridges and establish them with young children. That’s how I’ve seen my work: embracing and walking in the shoes of others that are different from you but have much to teach you. It’s a lifelong learning experience. Rather than being threatened by differences, we should celebrate them and see them as a patchwork quilt of food, music, stories, and history that this great nation has allowed to come together and flourish.

One of the things that makes us great is our newly arrived families from all over the world—some came fleeing the Holocaust, some came fleeing despots in South America, and some are now fleeing the violence in Ukraine. When they find their way to our shores, you can be sure that they’re going to contribute in ways that we desperately need to survive as a people. The world is very fragile, and it’s these stories—these voices—that together as a chorus should be seen as a bridge we need to cross in order to be secure for the next generation.

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