Like his former cohort Judy Peiser, with whom he co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore, Ferris understands how to be a true folklorist: He disappears into the background and, with tape recorder and camera, documents his subjects in their natural light.
In this week's issue of the Flyer, Leonard Gill reviews Ferris' newest book, Give My Poor Heart Ease. As Gill notes, the Mississippi-born Ferris, founder of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss and the former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who currently works at the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC, will return to his former stomping grounds — the Center for Southern Folklore — for a booksigning at 7 p.m. tomorrow.
The book's title comes from a 21-minute film produced by Yale University Media Design Studio with the Center for Southern Folklore back in 1975. (View it at Folkstreams.net.)
Meanwhile, the book itself is chock full of revelations, such as this first-person narrative from Otha Turner in his prime:
"I can dance. I can sing, ride horses, chop cotton and plow, whoop and holler, cut somersets, do all that stuff. I got two acres and two-tenths of land. I bought it. Scurrying hard, my labor paid for it. I paid one thousand for the land and 150 dollars for the house. Paid three hundred dollars to move the house. And I rent twelve acres and a half of cotton land."
And this, from B.B. King's firsthand account of his arrival in Memphis:
"When I first left Indianola, I was hitchhiking, and I ran across a guy with a truck. I asked him if he would let me ride with him to Memphis if I would help him unload his flour. I had walked about fifteen or twenty miles when I saw this guy. I helped him unload his flour, and then we got into Memphis at 3:30 in the morning. I didn't have any money, but this guy fed me. He had food with him in his truck. He took me to Union Station, and that's where I sat until the next morning because I didn't know any place to go... That was the very first time I had been to Memphis, and Memphis was to me then like New York City would be to the average person. I was really like a kid in a candy store."
Son Thomas, Willie Dixon, Clarksdale's singing barber Wade Walton, and long forgotten characters like fiddler Tom Dumas and produce seller C.L. Redwine all receive equal billing, along with a Sunday service at Rose Hill Church and a radio ad for Gary's House of Meat.
The accompanying CD and DVD amplify the importance of the folklorist's role, documenting prisoners chopping cotton on Parchman Farm as well as songs, including Lee Kizart's memorable "I Got the World in a Jug and the Stopper in My Hand".
For more information on Give My Poor Heart Ease, go here.