October 28, 2020

Voices of Mississippi: William Ferris collection earns two Grammy nominations

By Kelle Barfield / Special to The Vicksburg Post

When someone is a pioneer, a trailblazer, we naturally look back at his life’s work and examine it. But William Ferris’s life’s work inspires us to look forward. What do we see every day worthy of further study? What is familiar to us yet contains a new lesson to be learned?

Ferris retired from the classroom in July from the University of North Carolina but remains a professor emeritus there, along with his wife, Marcie. He has spent more than six decades capturing and sharing the stories of others. The culmination of his life’s passion, an assembly of southern folklore and music titled Voices of Mississippi, recently received Grammy nominations for Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album.

The public will have to wait until Feb. 10 to learn the outcome of Grammy judging, yet the people of Vicksburg, many who grew up knowing Ferris, already know the treasure of his work and the inspiration to capture our own oral traditions.

“As a folklorist, you become a conduit, taking the voice you hear and sharing it through books, recordings and films, photography,” Ferris said.

Born in Vicksburg in 1942, Ferris grew up in the Jefferson Davis community south of town. As a teen, he began documenting the artwork, music and lives of people on his family’s farm and in the local community.

“All those early photographs were developed by Connie Woods, in a little pharmacy catty corner from the old YMCA. I have the first negative I ever took. I kept everything.”

Ferris’s work is archived and digitized in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina and has served for half a century as a powerful teaching tool in institutions of higher learning where he taught, including UNC as well as Jackson State University, Yale University and the University of Mississippi, where Ferris became the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in 1978.

He laughs when he considers his own teachers here in Warren County, some at little Jefferson Davis Academy, which once stood on Campbell’s Swamp Road.

“There were three teachers for six grades,” including Gladys Barfield, he said. “Mrs. Barfield was a great teacher. When I was in the sixth grade, she said, ‘How many of you children are going to college?’ There were about six of us in the class. I was the only child in the whole school whose parents had gone to college, and I sure didn’t raise my hand. She pointed her finger at me, and she said, ‘Billy Ferris, you are going to college.’ And I said, ‘I ain’t goin’ to no college,’ because I didn’t want to leave my friends. But thankfully, Mrs. Barfield, a sweet, wonderful lady, was right that I did go to college.”

Lessons learned

Ferris acknowledged that as a folklorist, in essence, he took his Warren County friends and a piece of their souls with him.

“When you work with people and their stories, they become a part of you, a lifelong relationship. I tell my students that’s a different way of looking at learning, more than just taking a class and turning in a paper.

“Many of my most important teachers were not in the classroom. They were people who I grew up with, family and friends. Sometimes they were famous, like B.B. King, and sometimes they were unknown, like Parchman inmates. I learned from all of them. You learn to be humble and to recognize that you continue learning as you go through life.

“My father used to say, ‘You can learn a lesson from each person you meet in life,’ if you just listen.”

Although Ferris admits that when he decided to pursue a career as a folklorist, it was hard for his parents to envision that being a “real job.”

“My friends said the same thing. They couldn’t imagine how doing interviews with blues singers and quilt makers and mule traders would translate into a job that would pay you, and yet I was able to find that job and to have a good life doing what I loved.

“I tell my students, ‘follow your heart and you will be successful and happy with your life.’”

The human experience

Ferris said that each new job held a learning curve. “The National Endowment for the Humanities was the biggest challenge because that’s not a university setting.” When President Bill Clinton named Ferris to chair the NEH in 1997, he asked his predecessor, Sheldon Hackney, what was involved in the job.

“And he said, ‘Oh, it’s very simple. You just report to Congress, to the president and to the American people.’ That was a terrifying thought. But that is in fact what you do. So it takes a while in any new job to figure out all the players and what they expect of you and how to do it. But being a folklorist is a big part of success, in that you learn to walk in the shoes of other people. You learn to listen and to respond to what people would like to see happen.”

Ferris points out that folklore is as old as the human experience.

“When we study folklore, we study the roots of something that is thousands of years old. When we record those voices and share them, we really are tapping into a powerful vessel of history that people all over the world are hungry for. People today are hungry for voices that are authentic and beat from the heart.”

The recordings in Voices of Mississippi speak in that way.

“And many of them are Vicksburg voices. Mule trader Ray Lum, Victor “Hickory Stick” Bobb, Reverend Isaac Thomas, the amazing preacher at Rose Hill Church.” Ferris added that Vicksburg native Willie Dixon “was the greatest composer of blues and the greatest blues bass player in history. They represent a part of American culture that has been neglected yet is treasured and needs to be reproduced.”

Ferris reflected on Vicksburg’s strategic plan for economic growth recently released by the Vicksburg–Warren County Chamber of Commerce, which includes advancing cultural economics.

“The focus on culture that Vicksburg is developing is going to raise a flag that Vicksburg is aware of its great legacy.

“Vicksburg stands midway in a major cultural and historical corridor, really the deepest and richest vein in the nation, between Memphis and New Orleans. To build out on what’s already there in terms of culture is the smartest thing you could do. The tourists who come through there are growing in number, and they come from all over the world.”

New challenges

Though Ferris admits he will miss the classroom, he is looking ahead to new challenges, including producing a series of graphic novels “that will illustrate growing up on a farm in Warren County and the lives of people I was privileged to work with. You think, ‘No one would be interested in these people; they’re too local.’ That’s exactly why they are interesting. They have a power that people all over the world relate to.”

Finishing work that he started many years ago is also a goal. He explained that the

Voices of Mississippi set took 10 years to complete.

Lance and April Ledbetter at Dust-to-Digital, his publisher, had several teams over the years who worked to pull together the pieces that ended up in the boxed set.

“It was a long, tough journey. The fact that it’s been nominated for two Grammys reflects the quality of their work in selecting the material for final production.”

Ferris also continues to challenge others, as students of his work, to embrace their role as keepers of folklore.

“It’s a lot easier to do today. With one little instrument, your phone, you can photograph, record and film with better quality than I could do with my equipment. Now, there is much greater opportunity for people to preserve the voices of people they love and care about, to sit down and capture a piece of history that’s so precious, and to carry that history forward.”