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Arts & Culture

The Life And Adventures Of Folklorist Bill Ferris: American Songster Radio Podcast Episode 6

Dom Flemons with good friend and mentor Bill Ferris
Dom Flemons with good friend and mentor Bill Ferris.

Meet Bill Ferris

On the first Sunday of every month, Bill Ferris attended an African-American church on the farm where he grew up. Over time Ferris, a white child, became a routine presence at the church. He especially loved participating in the church’s communal singing. "I learned the hymns, and I just felt very emotionally close to that world," Ferris tells American Songster Radio host Dom Flemons.

Later, as a young adult, Ferris had the realization that the music of the church depended entirely on the memories of the attendees. There were no hymnals. To help ensure the longevity of the music, Ferris began making tape recordings of the church services. Though he had little idea at the time, this impulse to record would set the course of Ferris's life’s work.

Episode 6 - The Conversation with Dom Continues

'That just led me further afield to the blues, and to trying to understand what we call now the American South' -- Bill Ferris

On Episode 6 of American Songster Radio, Bill Ferris and Dom Flemons sit down for a follow-up conversation after trading notes on "Songs that Changed My Life" (podcast episode 2). This time around, the pair talk about the roots of Ferris’s documentary work in his experiences as a young person in rural Mississippi.

Recording spirituals and hymns launched Ferris into other spheres of music and culture. "That just led me further afield to the blues, and to trying to understand what we call now the American South," Ferris explains. Gradually, the place Ferris thought of simply as home became his professional subject expertise: "I didn't have a sense of wanting to do anything academically. I just loved the music. I used the academy and the study of the music as a way to justify having a job and keep doing what I wanted to do and get paid for it."

Flemons also gets Ferris's take on race in the rural south, the relationship of the blues to rock music and opportunities for cultural documentation in the digital era.

To close out the show, the American Songster plays his version of "Oh, Babe, It Ain’t No Lie." The song comes from the work of Elizabeth Cotton, a legendary guitarist with close ties to the North Carolina Piedmont, where Bill Ferris lives and works today.


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