Blues Brother

William Ferris: in the field, a leader in his field.

| November 05, 2009
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A college professor once told William Ferris that Ferris had "more degrees than a thermometer." And to prove the point, consider Ferris' schooling at Davidson College, Northwestern University, Trinity College (Dublin), and the University of Pennsylvania.

Now factor in Ferris' teaching career — at Jackson State University, Yale University, the University of Mississippi, and the University of North Carolina, where he's today a professor of history and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South.

In addition, Ferris was founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, once chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities, and co-founded (with Judy Peiser) Memphis' Center for Southern Folklore. He also hosted a weekly blues program on Mississippi Public Radio for nearly a decade. And as for publishing, he co-edited the mammoth Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and wrote the study Blues from the Delta.

Rolling Stone named Ferris one of the Top 10 professors in the United State. But Ferris' late brother Grey had a teasing way of summarizing Ferris' accomplishments: "I never knew anyone who went further on less than my brother."

Grey Ferris should know. He taught his brother how to use a camera and to develop the pictures Ferris took on the family farm outside Vicksburg, which led Ferris to photograph and tape-record the secular and sacred sights and sounds around Vicksburg, the Delta, and beyond.

Thus was Ferris the folklorist born, and the music of black Mississipians was his passion. And now, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (The University of North Carolina Press) is here: an autobiographical account and, more importantly, a transcription of the recollections, which Ferris recorded in the 1960s and '70s, by blues and gospel musicians, preachers and Parchman inmates, radio disc jockeys and, in the case of Robert Shaw, a salesman for Lansky's on Beale.

And it's not only a written document. The book comes with a set of Ferris' original field recordings on CD: songs by the individuals featured in the book — from Ferris' childhood housekeeper, Mary Gordon, to Otha Turner.

There's more: The book also comes with a DVD that collects the documentary films Ferris shot in the '60s and '70s — films that include a scene inside a rousing church service, the work chants of prisoners, a rollicking house party in Clarksdale, B.B. King in concert at Yale, and the verbal dexterity of Shaw, that salesman from Lansky's. Leave it to Shaw to explain:

"This talk is what you call 'born with it.' You must be born with it before you can get with it. And once you're born with it, you're already down to the beat, the beat in the street. Understand, it's down, hip, what they call hip. Understand?"

Thanks to Professor Ferris, yeah, we do.

William Ferris will be in Memphis for two events on Saturday, November 7th. He'll be signing and discussing Give My Poor Heart Ease at Davis-Kidd Booksellers at 2 p.m. and at the Center for Southern Folklore at 7 p.m.

Memphis:

A Case Study

"Charlotte? Charlotte doesn't have the characteristics of place that Memphis has," says Wanda Rushing, who grew up outside Charlotte and who today serves as an associate professor of sociology at the University of Memphis. "I knew that from the time I interviewed at the University of Memphis in 1998. I knew then that Memphis is where I wanted to be."

It's also a city she knew she wanted to write about, and she does in Memphis and the Paradox of Place (The University of North Carolina Press). And she does the city proud — as a site of entrepreneurship and cultural innovation and as a city that can hold its own globally. How so? By reworking its local products into a worldwide identity. Rushing calls that process the "production of locality." Readers will recognize it as, more simply, Memphis' unique sense of place. "An important place," Rushing would add.

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