William Ferris is known around North Carolina as a folklorist — a man whose passion is to chronicle the stories, music and culture of the American South. His love for documenting his communities began as a boy. At 12 years old, he was given a camera and began to take photographs around his neighborhood in Warren County, Mississippi. There are tales of young Ferris taking a reel-to-reel recorder to record hymns at church.
His 60 years of collecting stories earned him recognition at the Grammys this year. “Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris” won for “Best Historical Album” and “Best Album Notes” for the 120 page booklet that accompanied the box set.
The recently-retired professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is back from his big night In Los Angeles and joins host Frank Stasio to share the details of the experience, his dedication to collecting this work, and why today’s audience is still captivated by these stories. Plus, he shares details about an exhibit he curated called “I AM A MAN: Civil Rights Photographs, 1960–1970” which is on view through May 2019 at the Love House and Hutchins Forum on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.
On winning the Grammy:
It was almost like a dream. The Grammys, for people who work with music, are like the Nobel Prize for writers. All of my heros like Quincy Jones, T-Bone Burnett — they are frequent recipients of those awards. For someone who’s worked with the kinds of artists I’ve worked with in prisons and little juke joints, it’s beyond the imagination that that music would ever be elevated in the way that the Grammy does.
On the “Voices of Mississippi” box set:He put together a beautifully balanced body of sound recordings along with my documentary film and a book that transcribes the voices of music and storytellers, which for me is especially important because I teach courses on southern literature and the oral tradition. And I view this box set as oral literature.
On preserving the legacy of gospel music:
We were the only white family in that community. All the other families were black.
Every first Sunday they gathered to worship, and I would join them. And I learned the hymns. Over time I realized there were no hymnals in the church. They were all sung from memory. And when those families were no longer there, the music would disappear. So I began to record and photograph and later film those services.
On the chants and songs of the inmates at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary:
Those songs were a way of survival and often would communicate not only warnings if the boss was coming, but they could also say things to the boss’ face that would be dangerous if they were in conversation, but the boss would laugh because it was in music. Music was a kind of safe space where you could say and do things without fear of being injured or even killed.
On legacy this box set creates:
For me recording these voices in the 60s was a political act. They were voices that were unheard on every form of media … They asked if I did the recording would I promise to tell the story when I wrote the book or made the record. And I said I will. So it’s creating a legacy for invisible voices that will never be invisible again.