Review of The Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris
Dust-to Digital, Atlanta, GA, 2018
3 CDs and1 DVD in box with 120 pp. book; also includes streaming media. $60.00
The music and voices of Mississippi have perhaps nowhere been better appreciated, recorded, and discussed than by William Ferris. Born in 1942 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, into a White outback farming family that raised soybeans, cotton and cattle, he found by chance and study a way into a discipline then in formation: Folklore. His doctorate in the field from University of Pennsylvania in 1969 merely amplified his initial, allied interests, which consisted of wandering around the areas he knew back home, meeting then befriending local Blues musicians, Gospel singers from nearby churches, and Story Tellers, and recording or filming them where they lived and gathered. As Ferris put it: “You can learn theory in your courses but when you are in the midst of fieldwork you just follow your heart.” And so he did as a native son while navigating racial and gender tensions, and the turbulence and danger born from them, from the 1950s into the 1970s.
We are much the richer for his varied achievements as a Folklorist during this period and thereafter. I will note just several if within a larger context: his contributions to the Blues revival nationwide, initially with White college audiences (usually attributed to the 1958 recording hit “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio); founder of the first Center for the Study of Southern Culture at University of Mississippi in the mid-1970s to “investigate, document, interpret and teach about the American South” (from which the 21-volume Encyclopedia of Southern Culture evolved in 1989); sustaining at the Center from 1983 on Living Blues Magazine, a premiere source, launched in 1970 in Chicago in response to its vibrant urban Black Blues mix; and as chair, National Endowment of the Humanities, appointed in 1997 by then President Clinton.
From this legacy, rooted in Ferris’ upbringing through tough and better times, and ever attentive to the depth and scope of the culture around him as Folklorist, Dust to Digital has paid Ferris due honor with this release: a box set, quite beautifully produced with two CDs of music (Blues and Gospel, recorded 1966-1978), one CD of Story Telling and interviews (recorded 1968-1994), and one DVD of seven documentary films that Ferris made (from 1972-1980).
Of those films, there is “Gravel Springs Fife and Drum,” featuring Othar Turner and Napoleon Strickland, depicting how that music came to be and its value for the community, then the “Green Valley Grandparents,” who found in providing healing care to institutionalized, neglected ill children a way to enliven their days reciprocally. A funny expose of “Ray Lum: Mule Trader” and his exploits as a virtuoso merchant known by one and all leads to the inspired “Fannie Bell Chapman: Gospel Singer,” from Centreville, Mississippi. Portraits of “Four Women Artists” (including Eudora Welty) follow, with several other films thereafter.
Included in the box set is an informative book of 120 pages with notable introductions to each section, exemplary photos, lyrics of the 79 songs, transcriptions of the stories, and autobiographies of performers most probably taken from the interview tapes Ferris made with them. There is B. B. King first telling us why he called his guitar, “Lucille,” a discussion between Bluesman/sculptor James “Son Ford” Thomas, poet Allen Ginsberg, and William Ferris on the parallel creative impulse in Blues and poetry, with another brief discussion with Pete Seeger -- whose step-mother, composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, was instrumental in transmitting the significance of American folk music in the 1940s through her writings.
The cover of the box set typifies the verve and cultural wealth contained within it: There he is, James “Son Ford” Thomas, sitting on an old, disused couch on the porch of his clapboard house in Leland, Mississippi. He holds in his hands one of his wide-eyed skull sculptures, but this one with big sunglasses, perhaps the pair he usually wears. Lined up at his feet are other skull sculptures still in process, one of which seems to be a smaller cathead with prominent whiskers. Is that one finished? It seems so. Recently, I encountered several of those skull sculptures at a large, revealing exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.: “Outliers and American Vanguard Art”.
From the farming fields he grew up in and Mississippi communities he interacted with, informally as a seeker and more formally as a Folklorist, to a world-renowned, capitol museum, William Ferris has captured it all. And this release gives something of that breadth back to us. This is American heritage from the Deep South in different slices, selected by colleagues of Ferris from his years of fieldwork, and presented as he did it with similar effect: straight from the shoulder, unexpurgated, and touchingly true.