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Interview with: WILLIAM FERRIS


William Ferris didn't have to go far to ignite a distinguished career as a chronicler and scholar (and friend) of people and ways of life ignored by the prevailing larger culture. He talked and listened to the destitute black people who lived all around him on his family farm in the sticks outside of Vicksburg. Many of these same people can be met in his new book GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE: VOICES OF THE MISSISSIPPI BLUES, which consists of oral histories conducted by Dr. Ferris mostly in the 1960s and '70s. While the theme of blues music pervades the book, blues, in these voices, are usually connected to everyday, regular life. (After all, before finding the guitar, the blues came from the real-life moanful hollers of the field—which came, maybe, from the moanful hollering of Old Testament times.) The book allows us an inkling of the hard lives and psyches of people in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mississippi. They have much to tell us. 

Maybe it is possible to get a small but compelling sense of the richness of these voices with these quotes:

"When people are in church and get the spirit, they get full up. Some of them jumps up and makes a loud noise. I never do that. I never make a lot hollering and jump up. When I feel the spirit, it brings tears to my eyes. You feel sorry for yourself, I guess. I don't know what it is is. It just hits you somewhere and makes you feel sorry for yourself."

—Mary Gordon (1978)

"He talks today through man because if God had to talk Himself, we couldn't stand it. The earth would move at the sound of His voice. One day He talked on Mt. Sinai and lightning started to do skip jacks on the bosom of the clouds."

—the Reverend Isaac Thomas (1968)

"I can dance. I can sing, ride horses, chop cotton and plow, whoop and holler, cut somersets, do all that stuff. I been on a farm all my days."

—Othar Turner (1970)

"But now the state of Mississippi is a good state. I never cut it down. It's the people in the state of Mississippi what makes the state so bad."

—Gussie Tobe

"You don't never hear nobody talking about being scared of spirits now. They ain't no time to think of it. But a long time ago, there was a whole lot of people would talk of spooks. White people would use the word 'ghosts.' They say 'ghosts,' not 'spooks.' I don't know why there's the separation in that. But right now, the average person in Leland, if you go and talk with them, they'll say, 'Oh, there ain't no such thing as a ghost.' "

—Son Thomas

The book GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE comes with two extraordinary extras (and we don't use the adjective lightly): a CD called ROOTS OF THE MISSISSIPPI BLUES (which one editor said might be his favorite CD of 2009) and a DVD of short documentaries by Dr. Ferris featuring many of the same people in the book and on the CD. The combination of audio recordings and film footage (Dr. Ferris also shot intriguing photographs, a sampling of which is sprinkled through the book) makes the good doctor's presentation a powerful experience. (Media scholars should consider whether Dr. Ferris's approach might've kick-started tactics and thinking that are now ubiquitous.)

We were very happy that Dr. Ferris, who has too many accomplishments to list, agreed to speak with us about his important book.

—Marc Smirnoff



THE OXFORD AMERICAN: So here we are interviewing the great oral historian/field recorder via e-mail. Please tell me, Dr. Ferris, whether one's spirit can still seep through an e-mail exchange?

WILLIAM FERRIS: I think e-mails can be quite expressive. But they can never replace the feeling of a real letter. The medium is different, but the human spirit can permeate the Internet as surely as it shapes the letter written with pen and paper.

THE OA: GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE presents roughly thirty interview subjects whose voices you recorded during the 1960s and 1970s, mostly on location in their Mississippi homes or hangouts. About how many people in total did you record in the field during this time?

WF: I probably interviewed one hundred people for various lengths of time. The interviews in my book were chosen because the voices were especially strong as they spoke about music and life.

THE OA: Were you able to find room for everyone you wanted in the book, or was there anybody you had to leave out (for lack of space) whose absence from the book now haunts you?

WF: I could easily do another. I was not able to include the voices of teenagers and children whom I interviewed. Their voices change the tone of the stories of the older voices that define the narrative in this work.

THE OA: You demonstrate how, as kid growing up on a farm outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the 1950s and '60s, you came from one of those rare white families where racism was not condoned. You disclose vivid memories of encountering racism right about when you started public school. My question is, why did your "family [differ] from many white families, southern or otherwise, in their views about race"?

WF: Both my parents were college graduates, and many of our family were educators. My uncle Parker Hall was Treasurer of the University of Chicago, and another uncle Eugene Ferris taught medicine at the University of Cincinnati and Emory University. They, their families, and many of their colleagues visited our farm during holidays, and their visits underscored the importance of education and human rights for us as children.

THE OA: Please describe the farm you grew up on (what kind of farming did you all do?).

WF: My grandfather bought our farm around 1917, and my father began farming as a young man. He raised row crops—cotton, corn, and soybeans—and cattle. As children, my brother Grey and I worked in the fields baling hay and doing other jobs with my father and the men who worked for him. It was hot, hard work, and my brother and I took pride in being able to contribute in this way to the farm. Grey later gave up his law practice and returned to work on the farm with my father. After my father died, Grey ran the farm until his death in 2008.

THE OA: How did you decide whom you were going to interview?

WF: I always worked from the heart and interviewed people who were interesting. Their stories often took unexpected turns. The interview with Gussie Tobe moved in directions that I could never have anticipated. I met him through my friendship with James Thomas and Shelby Brown. When he told me he would like to tell me about his life, I set up the recorder without knowing what would follow. In many ways, his narrative is the most striking piece in the book. Like taking a photograph, when you record an interview, you never know what the final result will be until much later—after the negative is developed and printed, and after the taped recording is transcribed and edited.

THE OA: Did somebody ever refuse to be interviewed? If so, why?

WF: No one ever refused to give me an interview. This was probably because I first got to know each of the speakers before doing interviews. Had I tried to interview speakers without explaining my work to them, I would probably have been refused the interview.

THE OA: Some critics think that if you were white and you had black maids and black sharecroppers in your farm back in the day, then it doesn't matter how enlightened you were—you were still The Man, The Oppressor. Does the infamous "white guilt" have any role in your life's work?

WF: C. Vann Woodward described the "burden" of Southern history that haunts every white Southerner. It certainly is and always has been part of my consciousness. I have always felt that as a white Southerner I was connected to deep, enduring injustice that shaped the lives of generations of white and black Southerners. While I could not change that history—nor was I responsible for what previous generations had done—I could use my own life and my work as a folklorist to explore in a heartfelt, compassionate way how injustice and racial prejudice shaped my world. I also felt that the best way to do this work was to step outside my own world as a Southern white and learn from the black community. I tried—to borrow a phrase from Aretha Franklin—to build a "bridge over troubled water" through my work as a folklorist.

THE OA: It seems like many of the particular black communities you visited have now changed dramatically or even vanished. The poverty-stricken people of those rural communities lived hard, rough, and, perhaps, primitive lives. But in losing these communities, what good things have we lost?

WF: The French have a phrase I love to quote, "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) While many of the communities in which I worked have changed dramatically—Parchman's Camp B buildings in Lambert, Mississippi, have been leveled to the ground, and Rose Hill Church no longer functions as a church—the problems of poverty and race continue to gnaw at the lives of the current generation.

The good things that we have lost are the people themselves. With the exception of B.B. King, none of the speakers in this book are still alive. Their warmth, their humor, their voices are missed. The worlds they sustained through their music and stories are gone, but there is both blues and hip hop in the streets and at house parties in Clarksdale on weekends. We can never step into the same water of the river. The music and culture continue to flow, and we face both an opportunity and a challenge to understand the current worlds that have replaced those in which I worked.

"Oh, Rosie" by Inmates at Parchman Penitentiary

THE OA: The language in this book sparkles. For example, many of the people in your book use a plethora of vivid (and vintage) verbs, such as: waggling, scat, glook, sculpturing, hoddle, whoop, etc. Not to mention all the lively adjectives: needful, onliest, ticklest ("That was the ticklest thing I ever seen."), big-nosed ("big-nosed shoes"), etc. In fact, I hear often the language of Faulkner's characters in your book, which ended up giving me even more respect for Faulkner (i.e., he had a good ear). What are some of the favorite words that you heard?

WF: The language is incredibly rich. When I listen to these voices, they take me back to another time and place in the South. These speakers have the power to magically transport us through their stories into the worlds of slavery, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights in ways that are unique. One of my favorite words is "singingest," which B.B. King uses when he describes members of the Sanctified church as "the singingest people in the world."

THE OA: Another way of saying it is there's a lot of spoken poetry in this book. James "Blood" Shelby tells how in prison they called theirs the "inside world" (those not in prison were on the "outside world"). Shelby also says, "We would work from can to can't see." Who dazzled you most with his or her spoken poetry?

WF: It would be hard for me to choose a favorite speaker in this book because each person has his or her special quality of speech.  Mary Gordon and Fannie Bell Chapman speak with special power about dreams and the supernatural, while Jasper Love and Gussie Tobe offer gutsy, equally evocative descriptions of their experiences.

THE OA: Even though rural whites and blacks no doubt shared a lot of words, were there any words distinct just to the blacks you interviewed?

WF: It is near impossible to find a word that is distinct to either blacks or whites because their lives have been intimately interwoven for so long. As an analogy to words, the banjo was originally an African instrument introduced to the American South by slaves. Over time the instrument made its way into bluegrass music where today it is closely associated with white musicians like Earl Scruggs. Words have a similar ability to move across racial lines. Many four-letter words like tote, okra, jazz, and juke are derived from African languages, but today they are used by both black and white Southerners. The one-strand or diddley bow is an instrument that is closely associated with black music. Its name is a phrase that is used primarily in black oral tradition.

THE OA: I always knew that the name "Ole Miss" came from some reference to Southern ladies, but until reading your book, I did not know it was what the BLACKS called Southern WHITE ladies—and not necessarily what whites called them as well. Did I absorb that accurately?

WF: You are correct. The traditional names that black slaves on plantations used to address their white master and mistress were "Ole Master" and "Ole Miss." When these names appear in conversation or in a story, they signal that the story is set in slavery, in "the way back times."

Growing up in Mississippi, I always heard whites use the phrase "Ole Miss" to refer to the University of Mississippi. So when I first heard it used by James Thomas as part of a story that was set in slavery times, it took me a while to understand that he was describing the plantation mistress rather than the University of Mississippi.

The use of the phrase "Ole Miss" as a nickname for the University of Mississippi began in 1898 and was borrowed from the slave name for the plantation mistress to suggest the school's maternal role in nurturing only white students from its founding in 1848 to the admission of James Meredith as its first black student in 1962.

"Highway 61 Blues" by James Son Ford Thomas

THE OA: What is the one line spoken to you during these interviews that you find yourself repeating to others more than any other quote you recorded?

WF: The line that Gussie Tobe and others told me that I remember most vividly was, "You be sure to put this in your book." Each speaker understood that I was taking down stories that one day would be read and heard by people far beyond their community. Their lives and stories would have the authority of being written in a book, and they would not be forgotten.

THE OA: A sort of earthy mysticism seems to pervade the language of many of the speakers. They share visions, announce casually their belief in magic or hoodoo, etc. Did any of these mystics have a powerful or strange effect on you personally—during or after an interview did you ever feel the "visitation of the spirit"?

WF: There is an important connection to the afterlife and the supernatural that exists in each of these speakers' lives. Ghost stories are frequently told by all ages. The most dramatic connection to spiritual worlds that I felt was through Fannie Bell Chapman. Mrs. Chapman was able to command spiritual worlds during her healing services and in her everyday life. She told me that I had "power eyes" and offered to teach me how to heal if I wanted to learn. I was moved personally in her presence and felt her spiritual power very strongly.

THE OA: It's clear that your subjects trusted you. But do you think if you had been black you would've gotten different words and insights from your subjects? I got this thought when I came across the very lively Gussie Tobe, who says to you at one point: "A shirt like you've got on now, I've seen the time when if you come in this country with a shirt on like that, and we'd eat your ass up, man. We'd strip you of them clothes and set you out there naked if we would have had the guts. We had it in our minds, but we didn't have the guts to do that. So all we ever done was drink us plenty of white whiskey." Great poetry, but at that moment it hit me that almost all the men from this era in your book are wearing EXTREMELY tattered shirts (to judge from your sensitive photographs). So with Mr. Tobe's words, I was reminded of a divide that existed despite your great intentions....

WF: There was always a divide between me as a privileged white student and the black families with whom I worked. By reaching across this divide when I visited their homes and recorded their stories, I showed my commitment to honoring their lives. It was an act that spoke for itself given the racial divisions that existed in the '60s when I did this work. That divide fuels the tension that underlies all these interviews and gives them added power.

THE OA: Many of your subjects profess an overt faith in God—and speak at length about their faith. Did your religious views change at all during your contact with so many church people?

WF: While I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, I am not a religious person. I did, however, find a profoundly moving spiritual presence and an aesthetic beauty in the music and religious services of the black church. In Rose Hill Church and in other churches I visited, that power was always present. I always felt that I connected with a deeply spiritual experience in their services. I also felt the truest meaning of the church lay in the message of Martin Luther King, who used the black church to organize the black community in support of the Civil Rights Movement. The connection between the spiritual power of the black churches I visited and the message of Dr. King resonated with me in a special way.

THE OA: The Rev. Isaac Thomas says that "blues ain't nothing but the devil's work." More surprisingly, the great blues man Son Thomas uses almost the same words: "The blues is nothing but the devil." It's hard for me to tell whether Son Thomas is speaking literally or figuratively; in either case, he means what he says. Do you agree with these two gentlemen on this point?

WF: Blues is the secular voice of black music, and it stands in stark contrast to religious hymns and spirituals. Blues is also closely tied to religious music. Virtually every blues musician grew up in the church and learned to sing and play instruments there. Blues performed by the blues singer and sacred music sung by the preacher represent a Janus-faced world in which each performer understands both secular and sacred musical worlds intimately.

So it is not surprising that both Reverend Thomas and James [Son] Thomas agree that blues is the devil's music. Each chooses to follow his own path—Reverend Thomas to the church and James Thomas to the jook joint. James Thomas told me that he knew an old man in his nineties who played the blues and declared that he would jook on a few more years before he "crossed over" to leave the blues and join the church to be sure that when he died, he would go to heaven.

THE OA: It's clear that, for many of the people in the book, acoustic blues music was almost a sort of spiritual crutch they helped them get through tough times. Is the disappearance, more or less, of this kind of black music a good or bad thing? (I'm thinking of what Bruce Payne said to you: "As times have changed, the music has changed.")

WF: While electric guitars have largely replaced acoustic instruments, there will always be musicians who will perform on the one-strand and on unamplified instruments. Times have changed, but these instruments will never disappear, and in fact may one day grow in popularity. The fife and drum tradition of Otha Turner continues as a strong, unamplified musical sound.

THE OA: You mention at one point the incredible experience of spending the night at Mississippi Fred McDowell's home (in Como, I suspect). You say that you "vividly remember awakening to a breakfast of hot biscuits, coffee, and cane syrup." What else do you remember from that event?

WF: I remember Fred McDowell tuning his guitar until the strings were in perfect tune before he began his amazing bottleneck performance. It sounded like an orchestra, and I was amazed that such powerful music could come from a single guitar. He played blues, and he also accompanied his wife as they sang spirituals and gospel songs together.

Mr. McDowell told me that he had stopped playing blues until he met Alan Lomax, who recorded him in the '50s. Lomax encouraged him to continue playing, and he began performing again. I was struck that a folklorist could record a musician and change his career in such a positive way. I also felt humbled to be working with a musician who had also performed for Alan Lomax, whom I regarded as my hero.

THE OA: Speaking of Southern cuisine, you ate many meals with black families back then (obviously they were very generous). What did you eat during the era of these interviews with one of these families that you haven't eaten since?

WF: What I haven't eaten since is the homemade biscuits, the molasses made from sugar cane grown locally, the sausage made from locally grown hogs. Foods grown locally and served in the homes of people like Fred McDowell were so very special. I also enjoyed good meals in the home of James Thomas that were cooked by his wife Christine who bought all her food in the local grocery store.

It was my connection with the people who shared their meals with me that was truly unique. Sonny Boy Williamson, a blues singer and friend of James Thomas, had worked as a chef once and cooked amazing meals for his friends in Leland. There were also the sandwiches and corn liquor served by Shelby Brown at his house parties, and the fried fish served in a blues club in Greenville where James Thomas performed. Foods served with live music playing and couples dancing were special. I miss them all.

THE OA: I learned some new superstitions [from the book], including when Louis Dotson says, "They say it's good luck to spit on your bait when you put it on your hook." (Though he adds: "Sometimes it don't help none.") What is the wildest superstition you've ever come across in your research?

WF: Probably the wildest and most appealing superstition I came across was the belief that the best way to assure a good crop is to make love in your garden after the seeds have been planted.

THE OA: What is the single best musical experience you had in the field during this time?

WF: It is impossible to pick a single experience. There were moments late at night when music and dance mixed intensely with pleasure, fear, and excitement. I felt I had truly gone to the edge of a world that could never again be experienced or understood.

THE OA: Robert Palmer, the great music writer from Little Rock, wrote once that the Mississippi Delta got a little too much credit for birthing the blues and that Texas needed more props. Did you two ever debate this issue?

WF: Bob Palmer was my dear friend and soul mate. We would never have debated any question, because I always felt in awe of him and followed him like a spiritual leader. We both were drawn to the Mississippi Delta, because for us it was the emotional center of the blues.

Texas needs no props. It is quite simply another music zone in which blues mixes with Tex-Mex, country, and jazz. Those musics produce sounds that are very different from the blues of the Mississippi Delta.

THE OA: By the way, what are your memories of Mr. Palmer?

WF: Bob and I spent a memorable day in the 1980s at Parchman Penitentiary with B.B. King, Charles Evers, and Congressman John Conyers. B played a memorable concert for the inmates. The head of Cook County Jail, where B had recorded his album LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL, was also at the concert and mentioned that he had worked at Parchman Penitentiary earlier.

I arranged for Bob to teach music seminars at Yale University in the '70s and at the University of Mississippi in the '80s. And we visited many times in New York City when he lived there. One memorable evening, he took me to a birthday party for Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Greenwich Village. During the evening, I spoke with Allen Ginsberg and convinced him to read his poetry at the University of Mississippi Center for Study of Southern Culture, where I worked. Allen came with his mother and his old friend Harry Smith, whose ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC I had long admired. Harry brought several of his experimental films, which we watched together.

While spending a weekend in New York in the '70s with my parents and sisters Martha and Hester, Bob joined us for breakfast at a delicatessen in Greenwich Village. We spoke about our Southern roots and how they connected to the musical worlds that he knew so well in New York.

THE OA: In reading the material in the book, was there anything that you had forgotten and that surprised you?

WF: I had forgotten the power of these interviews. I remembered moments and stories within them, but rereading the total interviews was an important awakening for me. It was as if I met my old friends again and embraced the worlds we shared in the '60s.

THE OA: What is your next project?

WF: My next project, THE SOUTHERN VOICE: WRITERS, ARTISTS, AND MUSICIANS, is a collection of interviews that I have conducted over the past forty years. The interviews will be illustrated with my photographs of each speaker. The book will also include a CD that will feature recordings of each speaker and a DVD of my films with Cleanth Brooks, Eudora Welty, C. Vann Woodward, and Robert Penn Warren. In its format, design, and content, the book will be a companion to GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE: VOICES OF THE MISSISSIPPI BLUES. The UNC Press is interested in publishing THE SOUTHERN VOICE, and Rich Hendel, the designer of my blues book, has agreed to design this project to assure it serves as a companion to GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE.

During the twentieth century, Southern writers, artists, and musicians dramatically shaped our nation's humanities and arts worlds. Many of the speakers featured in my book are central to this history. Through my interviews and introduction to the book and to each section, I will consider how each speaker defined their work as Southerners and as Americans. I will consider the legacy of Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, who inspired generations of students through their series of textbooks on poetry, fiction, and drama. I will also discuss their lifelong friendship and their collaborations with Eudora Welty and C. Vann Woodward. (Brooks, Warren, and Woodward each delivered the National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture.)

Allan Gurganus, Barry Hannah, Randall Kenan, Lee Smith, Elizabeth Spencer, and Daniel Wallace discuss how childhood voices shape their fiction. Other interviews describe John Dollard's experiences in writing his classic CASTE AND CLASS IN A SOUTHERN TOWN, Shelby Foote's relationship with William Faulkner and his love for Southern history, and Allen Ginsberg's passion for the blues in a classic exchange with Mississippi Delta bluesman James Thomas.

Black writers and scholars Margaret Walker Alexander, Amiri Baraka, John Blassingame, Sterling Brown, Tom Dent, Ernest Gaines, Alex Haley, Etheridge Knight, and Alice Walker developed an important cultural vision of the American South that was grounded in the black voice and its memory. Deeply rooted in their own sense of place, the voices of these writers offer important similarities and contrasts with white Southerners in the book.

Southern photographers and painters will also be featured in the book. Painters Benny Andrews, Julien Binford, Carroll Cloar, Rebecca Davenport, Bill Dunlap, Maud Gatewood, Sam Gilliam, Ed McGowin, and George Wardlaw, as well as photographers William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, and Charles Faulk present an important visual history of the region. Each speaker defined art and photography as a tool for understanding the American South.

I will profile international scholars and writers who have worked with the American South. Sergei Chakovsky (Russia) and Krystan Dyankov's (Bulgaria) work on William Faulkner, Jacob Elder's (Trinidad) study of black folklore, Michel Fabre's (France) study of Richard Wright, and Ousmane Sembène's (Senegal) interest in Southern music and documentary film reveal the global appeal of the American South and its culture.

Finally, Charles Seeger (founder of the field of ethnomusicology) and his son Pete Seeger discuss how travels to North Carolina and other regions of the South shaped their musical careers.

Each of the interviews with the above individuals offer thoughtful, intimate details about the American South and how the region shaped their work as writers, artists, and musicians. Together, they created a rich body of work that is profoundly important to both our region and our nation. An annotated bibliography on each speaker's work will be included at the end of the book.

All interviews have been transcribed, and a number have been published in SOUTHERN CULTURES. Negatives of my photographs of each speaker have been digitized and are ready to be edited for inclusion in the book.

THE OA: In what ways did the voices in GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE act as source material for your 1978 book BLUES FROM THE DELTA?

WF: The voices in GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE were the inspiration for my book BLUES FROM THE DELTA, which developed from a Ph.D. dissertation in folklore that I wrote in 1968 at the University of Pennsylvania (entitled "Black Folklore from the Mississippi Delta"). In the dissertation I examined both the blues and folktales that I had recorded in the '60s in the Mississippi Delta. I published the first edition of BLUES FROM THE DELTA in 1970 as part of a series of ninety-two-page books issued by Studio Vista books in England. The series was edited by Paul Oliver and Tony Russell. I expanded that small book into a second edition with the same title that was published by Doubleday in 1978.

When I began my work on GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE, I first thought I might expand and update my earlier book. After looking at transcriptions of my field recordings, I realized that the real book lay in unleashing the voices of the musicians whom I had interviewed, photographed, and filmed. I also knew that I could enrich my text and photographs in the book with a CD of my field recordings and a DVD of my documentary films. This would allow the reader a total immersion in the lives of the musicians featured in the book. Thanks to the University of North Carolina Press, I was able to incorporate all my work into a single volume.

THE OA: Looking back, what was the main contribution of BLUES FROM THE DELTA to the study of Southern history and the blues?

WF: I think the main contribution of BLUES FROM THE DELTA to the study of Southern history and the blues was to present photographs and voices of blues artists as they spoke about their lives and music. These musicians and I jointly used the book as a platform to explain and interpret their music. In 1970, that was a significant step. The book also included a blues house party with its dynamic call and response between a piano player Pine Top Johnson and his audience Jasper Love, Maudie Shirley, and others from the McKinley Street neighborhood in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

"Somebody Knocking on My Door" by Napoleon Strickland

DVD CLIP AND MUSIC STREAMS: From GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE: VOICES OF THE MISSISSIPPI BLUES by William Ferris. Copyright © 2009 by William Ferris. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. For more information about the book, please visit






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