New book by Ferris documents the Mississippi blues

VICKSBURG — In the 1960s and 1970s, Vicksburg native Bill Ferris was doing something taboo for a white man in post-Jim Crow Mississippi.

The oldest son in a farming family of considerable means, he was meeting eye-level with black sharecroppers, musicians, preachers and prisoners to preserve their stories and songs.

More than three decades later, Ferris, a former director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has compiled his early fieldwork into his latest book, “Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues.” His words are complemented by black-and-white photos he took of his subjects, a DVD of the footage he captured on a Sony Super 8 camera and a CD of his original recordings made on a battery-powered reel-to-reel recorder.

On Dec. 14, Ferris will return to Vicksburg, to the Southern Cultural Heritage Center, to give a lecture and multimedia presentation on his fieldwork and new book.

“This is a very important homecoming to me because I owe everything to Vicksburg and Warren County,” said Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I’m especially proud that this book begins and ends in Vicksburg and Warren County, and I think that really says a lot about its amazing musical history.”

Ferris’ journey and fascination with the blues began at his family’s farm in Warren County, about 15 miles south of Vicksburg. There, he became familiar with traditional spirituals and hymns at a very young age through Mary Gordon, a black housekeeper on the farm. Ferris said she was much more like a member of the family than a hired hand.

“She introduced me to the hymns at Rose Hill Church when I was just 4 or 5. There were no hymnals at the church, and as I got older I knew they would be lost unless they were recorded.

“That was really my first inspiration to make these recordings and films,” Ferris said.

Rose Hill was a small congregation on the Ferris farm. The small church is still maintained to allow for reunions and funerals, Ferris said, but it no longer has an active congregation.

In the opening chapter of “Give My Poor Heart Ease,” Gordon talks about the church and the spiritual visions she had throughout her life. The Rev. Isaac Thomas of Vicksburg also talks about the relationship between the church and the blues, with Thomas concluding, “The blues and all that stuff ain’t nothing but the devil’s work.”

In contrast to his first book centered on the blues — “Blues From The Delta,” published in 1970 — Ferris intentionally limited his own voice in his latest effort. Outside of a personal introduction and epilogue, as well as brief chapter introductions to provide context to the interviews, Ferris is nonexistent in the 300-page work.

“So, what you have here, which is rare, is not a scholar or a journalist speculating on what the blues might have been, but people who are of that culture telling in unvarnished ways exactly what they think about the blues,” said Ferris of his approach to putting the book together. “These stories, to me, are timeless.”

While interviews from the mid-1970s with blues legends such as B.B. King and Vicksburg native Willie Dixon are included, firsthand accounts from lesser known musicians from Lorman, Centreville, Leland, Tutwiler, Clarksdale — and even the State Penitentiary at Parchman — provide a deeper look into the various musical stylings from Mississippi that would eventually give birth to what is today considered the blues.

From Lorman, Louis Dotson explains how to make and play a one-strand-on-the-wall guitar, which was the first instrument many Delta musicians mastered. From Gravel Springs, Otha Turner recalls the fife and drum picnics that took place in the hill country of northeast Mississippi. From Leland, guitarist and artist James “Son” Thomas recounts his childhood days sharecropping in Yazoo County, where he learned about the early blues from his father and grandparents.

Through these and many other intimate stories detailed in “Give My Poor Heart Ease” — as well as on the CD and DVD accompanying the book — Ferris’ fieldwork proves to be every bit as important and impressive as the now-famous Mississippi recordings made by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. At the time he was recording, however, Ferris said he was more conscious of keeping his equipment working and staying out of trouble than he was of preserving a piece of blues history.

“I knew what I was hearing was amazing, but I was so immersed in the work — trying to keep the equipment going and watching over my shoulder in case the Highway Patrol was following — it was hard for me to fully appreciate the music and the stories,” he said. “It really took the entire 40 years before I started going back and realizing how rich and powerful this material was.”

Other than King — who is featured in a relaxed pose at a Boston club on the book cover — none of the preachers, prisoners or musicians Ferris interviewed as a college student are alive today. Ferris’ audio and video recordings of them are unpolished gems, further preserving pieces of Mississippi’s musical past that may have otherwise been forgotten.

From the gospel harmonizing of The Chapman Family of Centreville to the work chants from inside the walls of Parchman, the songs featured on the 22-track CD and the footage captured in the seven short films on the DVD provide an intimate link to the stories featured in print.

“This book is a dream come true for me as a folklorist, because it allows me not only to present the stories in text, but include the original field recordings,” Ferris said. “You meet the people in the book, but by hearing and seeing them in the recordings it gives you an even deeper connection to their stories.”

Ferris dedicates his book to his younger brother, the late Grey Ferris, a former Mississippi state senator and education advocate who first taught the elder Ferris to shoot photos and develop film.

For his Vicksburg homecoming, Ferris plans to provide much more than a typical book-signing.

“I want to immerse the audience in what the book is about, so they can get a feeling for what these stories really represent,” he said. “It’s really a tribute to the black people and musicians of Mississippi, and honoring their legacy in a way that’s long overdue.”

In addition to serving in the administration of President Bill Clinton as NEH director, Ferris was a developer of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Southern Mississippi and a co-editor of the “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.”

Steve Sanoski/Vicksburg Post

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