Lifelong Folklorist Unearths Stories From The South

Oct 7, 2013

Bill Ferris' new book, The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists, presents 40 years of interviews and photographs.
Credit UNC Press

For decades, Bill Ferris documented Southern African-American folklore.  His latest book The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists presents material from 40 years of interviews with writers, scholars and artists who reflected southern culture in their work.

Ferris discussed his new book with Host Frank Stasio on The State of Things.

Ferris said he was inspired to become a folklorist from childhood experiences attending a black church on his family’s Mississippi property.

“The hymns there were sung without hymnals from memory.  They were a capella,” Ferris said.  “The whole church almost would rise from the ground with the sound of that deep, powerful voice and that preacher preaching.”

Ferris began recording songs at the church as a way to preserve the culture.  “I realized as I grew older, since there were no hymnals, when the families were no longer there, the music would disappear,” he said.

These early recordings became his doctoral dissertation topic and documenting Southern culture became a lifelong mission. Ferris’ work documented black and white culture from the American South, gathering voices as diverse as B.B. King and Eudora Welty. 

“As a Southerner, this is part of my culture.  These are voices that I understand in my heart, that I grew up with,” said Ferris. 

He documented vast amounts of African-American folklore in particular.  “In order to better understand myself as a White Mississippean, born in a privileged family, I need to, as my father would always say, walk in the shoes of others,” he said.  

In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Ferris the director of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He worked with politicians from both sides of the aisle.

“I would go into the offices of both Senator Kennedy and Jesse Helms, and we found common ground… We didn’t talk politics,” he said.  “We talked about stories… And each year we got an increase of five million dollars.” 

After completing his term as chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities, Ferris came to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he currently serves as history professor and senior associate director for the Center for the Study of the American South.