Keeper Of Southern Folklife Is Up For 2 Grammy Awards

9 hours ago
Originally published on February 1, 2019 3:01 pm

William Ferris is the keeper of Southern folklife. Born in Vicksburg, Miss. in 1942 and inspired by the people in his rural farm community, Ferris' dedicated documentation of the American South has led to a 3-CD box set of his recordings, Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris, which has been nominated for a two Grammy Awards in the categories of best historical album and best album notes.

Ferris grew up on a rather isolated farm in Warren County, Miss. with his family being the only white family on that farm. "There were black families, and we were a community," Ferris says. "The children played together and men in those families worked with my father in the fields."

Ferris remembers when he was about 4 or 5, a lady named Mary Gordon would take him to a little black church on the farm called Rose Hill Church every first Sunday.

"You could hear those hymns for a mile or more. They would waft across the countryside," Ferris says. "There is nothing more beautiful in that quiet still morning, with the sound of the hymns coming into your ear."

Those church hymnals would later become a central focus of Ferris' recordings.

As a teenager, Ferris got a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He says he began to record those services when he realized the beautiful hymns were sung entirely from memory.

"There were no hymnals in the church," Ferris says. "And when those families were no longer there, the hymns would simply disappear."

In 1968, Ferris began recording some amazing blues singers that lived a few miles from their farm. Parchman Farm, now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary, was a penal farm where prisoners were put to economical use.

"When I traveled in the Delta, they were terrible kinds of stories that people would tell me," he says. "Angry voices describing their experiences in Parchman Penitentiary, the black people dealing with the white world."

Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris is out now.
Courtesy of the artist

These experiences of documenting and talking to people — especially those most disadvantaged — in the American South has shaped Ferris' perspective on race in America.

"The cheapness of black lives is a theme that runs throughout our entire history, from slavery to the present." Ferris says. "Sadly, what was associated in my mind with Mississippi is now familiar throughout the nation. Hatred is a toxic kind of presence."

Ferris is former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and is currently a professor at The University of North Carolina teaching Southern folklore, music and literature. According to him, the university has the largest archive on the South, including all of his collection.

Folklore has always been Ferris' way of trying to leverage mutual respect. He emphasizes the necessity to "learn to live with one another and to celebrate, rather than be threatened by differences."

"Everyone is proud of who they are," Ferris says. "You're from the country. You're from the city, your family have lived here generations or they just arrived. They are part of the fabric of American culture. That's what this nation is all about."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Grammy Awards come next weekend in Los Angeles. Among this year's nominees is Southern folklorist William Ferris. Now, you probably will not see him outside Staples Center fending off the paparazzi. But if you do not know his name, you should. And here's your chance. His newest album "Voices Of Mississippi" is nominated in two categories. It's a collection of recordings that Ferris started making while he was still a teenager in the 1960s in the Mississippi Delta where he grew up. Decades later, he would go on to serve as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. And today as part of their Keepers series, The Kitchen Sisters and producer Barrett Golding bring us William Ferris, keeper of Southern folklife.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ISAAC THOMAS: This man here, he's calling upon the Lord, telling the Lord to remember him...

BILL FERRIS: Reverend Isaac Thomas, 1968, Rose Hill Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS: ...And did nothing for the establishment of the kingdom.

FERRIS: My name is Bill Ferris. I teach Southern folklore, music and literature at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The oral tradition...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERRIS: Reverend Thomas, when you preach, you have a special style. How did you develop that?

THOMAS: Well, sometime, you have a prepared sermon. But if you study God's word, he said, open your mouth and I'll speak through you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right.

THOMAS: And then you don't need no paper to get it all.

...Didn't feed those who were hungry.

FERRIS: I grew up on a farm in Warren County, Miss. It was very isolated. My family were the only white family on the farm. There were black families. And we were a community. The children played together. And men in those families worked with my father in the fields.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord, I'm in your hand, in your hand. Oh, Lord.

FERRIS: When I was about four or five, a lady named Mary Gordon would take me every first Sunday to the little black church on the farm, Rose Hill Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That church was there years before I was born, you know. It used to be a big, beautiful - everybody had roses up on that hill. And so that's where it got its name from.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Well, I done died.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, I got lots of relatives buried up on that hill - mother and father, got a brother up there, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2 AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord, I'm in your hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We really do appreciate you. We really do believe you're interested in our church.

FERRIS: I always feel like this is my church.

THOMAS: Amen. Amen.

FERRIS: Of all the churches I would want to come to...

THOMAS: This is your church Mr. Ferris. Any time you come home, this is your church. Amen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing unintelligibly).

FERRIS: Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Paulette, Miss., 1967.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing unintelligibly).

FERRIS: You could hear those hymns for a mile or more. They would waft across the countryside. There's nothing more beautiful than that quiet, still morning with the sound of the hymns coming into your ear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing) ...On my way. You know that (unintelligible).

FERRIS: When I was a teenager, I got a reel-to-reel tape recorder. And I began to record those services because I realized that the beautiful hymns were sung from memory - there were no hymnals in the church - and that when those families were no longer there, the hymns would simply disappear.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing unintelligibly).

FERRIS: Here at the University of North Carolina, we have the largest archive on the South in the world. All of my collection - about five tons of material - is there. You can hear all my field recordings streamed online, see my films and view photographs. An archive becomes a living, powerful vehicle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Singing unintelligibly).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FERRIS: In Leland, Miss., Sonny Boy Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FERRIS: I began to record some amazing blues singers that lived a few miles from our farm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SONNY BOY WATSON: (Singing) Now bring me my shotgun, oh, man, and a pocketful of shell.

FERRIS: When I traveled in the Delta, there were terrible kinds of stories that people would tell me - angry voices describing their experiences in Parchman Penitentiary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Did you hear about the water boy drowned in the Mobile Bay?

FERRIS: Black people dealing with the white world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing) Did you hear about...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: Oh, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing) The water boy drowned. Did you hear about...

FERRIS: Parchman Penitentiary, the 20,000-acre penal farm, 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) Mobile Bay, Lord, Mobile Bay.

FERRIS: The cheapness of black lives is a theme that runs throughout our entire history from slavery to the present. And sadly, what was associated, in my mind, with Mississippi is now familiar throughout the nation. Hatred is a toxic kind of presence. We simply have to learn to live with one another and to celebrate rather than be threatened by differences. So for me, folklore has always been a way of trying to leverage mutual respect. Everyone is proud of who they are. You're from the country. You're from the city. Your family have lived here generations or they just arrived, they are part of the fabric of American culture because that's what this nation is all about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MISSISSIPPI FRED MCDOWELL: (Singing) I had a dream, dream I had last night. I dreamed I went to the U.N. and set the whole nation right.

FERRIS: Mississippi Fred McDowell accompanied a friend of his as he sang "Went To The U.N. And Set The Whole World Right" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MISSISSIPPI FRED MCDOWELL: (Singing) And Washington, they called me. And I went. I had to be a guest of the president.

INSKEEP: That's Mississippi Fred McDowell off the Grammy-nominated album "Voices Of Mississippi" collected by the folklorist William Ferris. Hear more of these voices and other stories from The Keepers series on the podcast The Kitchen Sisters Present. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.