Personal Preservation: Keeper of Culture Bill Ferris’s Storied Career Reveals Depths of Deep South
William Reynolds Ferris has been at home with U.S. presidents and praying pigs, angelic choirs and the “devil’s music”—the blues.
For six decades Ferris has been sticking his nose into obscure corners of American culture. His curiosity has been rewarded with a leadership position at the National Endowment for the Humanities and two 2019 Grammy awards for Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris—best historical album and best liner notes.
Ferris, who was born and raised in Mississippi, recorded that collection mostly in his 20s and 30s. He gathered sounds of gospel singers in now-vanished churches, unknown Delta blues musicians, tale-spinners who spoke of mules and ministers and signifyin’ monkeys of African-American legends.
He incorporated short films about anyone from author Eudora Welty to farmer Tom Johnson, who taught his pigs to say grace before assailing their trough. The label Dust to Digital spent a decade combing his archives and transcribing every word of the audio recordings for the hardcover book that accompanies the four-disc set.
“The most transformative moment of my life was winning those Grammy awards,” Ferris says at his Chapel Hill home. “That was the defining moment that affirms this work has value. I thanked the Academy for recognizing these voices and making it possible for them never again to be left out of history.
“Put (them) all together, and it’s like a Faulkner novel. I’d come out of literature when I started listening to these voices and recording them. But the faculty at Northwestern said, ‘This is simply not considered serious literature.’ So, I discovered folklore, which allowed me to study them in an academic field.”
He’d gone to Northwestern for his M.A. in English, after getting a B.A. in that subject from Davidson College in 1964. But he’d been moving toward folklore unknowingly for two decades.
As a boy at Broadacres, his father’s farm southeast of Vicksburg, Ferris was immersed in the community of sharecroppers that surrounded the farm—their lives unlike his relatively privileged one. His African-American babysitter, Virgil Simpson, played her favorite dance music until midnight, letting Bill and younger brother Grey listen while their parents were out.
Though the Ferris family worshipped at a Presbyterian church, he found himself drawn to a cappella singing by the black congregation at Rose Hill Church, a quarter-mile from his house. Those sounds resonated in his mind on breaks from high school studies at Brooks School in Massachusetts.
“I realized there were no hymnals,” he says. “The music was sung from memory, and when those families were no longer there, the music would be gone. I began to record and later photograph those services as a way of preserving that memory, and I expanded that to blues music and folk tales, white and black.”
Though he picked up his first camera at 12, and he and Grey set up a darkroom on the farm, he needed a double epiphany at Davidson College to shift his career path.
There he discovered Frederic Ramsey’s book Been Here and Gone, chronicling African-American musicians around the South, and he heard Library of Congress field recordings by the father-son team of Alan and John Lomax.
“I listened to those with great excitement,” he says. “They were doing the kind of work I wanted to do but was not sure I could justify as serious.”
After getting his master’s degree, he went to Ireland to write a thesis at Trinity College in Dublin. He’d picked James Joyce as his subject, “because I identified so deeply with Joyce as a rebel. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, he has Stephen Dedalus say, ‘I fled the nets of family, religion and politics.’ Dedalus was my man, though I would have added ‘race.’
“I was fleeing the South. But I began to see my work recording voices as social protest,” he says. “These were forgotten voices, and I was giving them recognition that was not otherwise possible.”
He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and collected master’s and doctoral degrees in folklore.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he admits. “I just knew I was following my heart. (I met) people whose lives were totally different from my own, working-class poor Black families and working-class poor white families who were incredibly smart at what they did and were teaching me. I thought, ‘I’m going to work through this rich body of material and see what comes out.’”
Ferris returned to Mississippi to teach literature at Jackson State University for two years. Then he moved to Yale University in 1972 to teach in the American and Afro-American Studies department, bringing pieces of Mississippi along.
He invited mule trader Ray Lum to spend a September afternoon outside Sterling Memorial Library, where Lum shared wisdom with passersby and conducted the mock auction of a professor’s bulldog. Lum’s motto: “You live and learn, then you die and forget it all.” (He became the subject of one of Ferris’ dozen books.)
Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Yale student when Ferris arrived and then a fellow faculty member, recalls “Bill pulling off a miracle and nominating B.B. King for an honorary degree. B.B. brought out Lucille (his guitar), played right in the middle of the stage at commencement, and 10,000 people went crazy.”
Gates, a Peabody Award-winning historian teaching at Harvard University, says Ferris “has been one of my role models for bridging the gap between town and gown. I do scholarly work, but I also translate scholarship into more digestible forms through my documentary series on PBS. He edited the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, and I edited an encyclopedia (Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience). Bill has been a man on a mission, and I’ve watched him.”
That mission has been linked to race all his life.
“My first vivid memory of prejudice was when I was five years old,” Ferris remembers. “We were the only white family on the farm, and I was put on a bus to go to an elementary school where each teacher taught two grades. My Black friends on the farm went to a one-room schoolhouse and had only one teacher for six grades.”
Ferris complained to his parents that it wasn’t fair.
“They understood my concern and said, ‘That’s just the way things are. You have to accept that.’ But I didn’t accept it. I never accepted it,” he says. “My work in folklore and oral history and social justice began at the age of five, with a clear sense that the world beyond our farm was a world I didn’t feel comfortable with.”
Moving the Needle
He noticed that Davidson had three Presbyterian churches: A big one for students, who were all white, a smaller one for working-class whites, and a Black church across the tracks.
“I volunteered there in the little Sunday school, and I became involved with civil rights issues, organizing marches and inviting speakers to campus” he says. “I stirred the pot.”
He brought Michael Scriven, an evangelical atheist, to debate God’s existence with Davidson professor Earl MacCormac; a blizzard of angry letters to the Charlotte Observer followed. Ferris didn’t always fit in with fraternity brothers in Kappa Alpha, whose racial politics rarely matched his, but he stayed to change minds from within. (“At least, I thought I could.”)
He found mentors in William Goodykoontz, who “got football players to write poems” in English classes, and economics professor Ernest Patterson, “a Marxist socialist who said his mission was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They were the two radical voices who encouraged students to dissent against racial segregation.”
Ferris got involved with the Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella group for civil rights groups in Mississippi. Today, he says, “I’m still trying to move the needle to address intolerance, which is alive and well. In the ’60s, we thought we had put it to rest. Racism is like cancer in remission; you have to keep fighting it.”
He does that by showing how American literature, folk art, music and other cultural elements—often with roots in the African diaspora—cut across lines of color to unite us.
While at Yale, he co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis. Then the University of Mississippi lured him to Oxford in 1979, first to launch the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and then to teach. The initial edition of his Southern encyclopedia followed in 1989.
At Ole Miss, Ferris engaged in feats of bureaucratic wizardry.
“The chancellor said, ‘Tell us what you want to do.’ I said, ‘We’d like to be housed in this antebellum observatory and would like the entire building, once we raise $3 million to renovate it.’ The chancellor’s advisor said, ‘He’ll never raise $3 million. Go ahead and agree.’”
Ferris raised the $3 million.
“I said, ‘I want to purchase the largest folklore library in the world, which my (University of Pennsylvania) advisor Kenneth Goldstein has put up for sale. For the first five years, for every grant we receive, I want to keep the indirect charges that would otherwise go to the university budget.’”
The administration acquiesced. Ferris’s Yale friends were incredulous: “They said, ‘This is unbelievable!’”
Ferris kept stirring pots. Curtis Wilkie, then a New Orleans-based reporter for The Boston Globe and now associate professor of journalism at Ole Miss, recalls the time in 1995 when Ferris scheduled an international conference on Elvis Presley. It fell one week after a prestigious annual conference on William Faulkner and raised a stink.
“I called Bill and asked, ‘Is there a story?’ He said, ‘If you come up here, we can make one,’” Wilkie says.
“Bill is one of four or five people that old-timers would say was responsible for the renaissance of Oxford. It was a one-horse town when I went to school here, but Oxford has blossomed into one of the great places in the South,” Wilkie says. “The Center was part of a critical mass that helped turn this country town Faulkner wrote about in his novels (as “Jefferson”) into a politically progressive community that’s the hottest place to live in the state.”
President Bill Clinton nominated Ferris to become the seventh chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a post he held from 1997 to 2001. The New York Times reported that Mississippi’s Republican senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, asked incoming president George W. Bush to keep him, because he’d minimized ideological battles. Asked by the Times if he was a Republican or a Democrat, Ferris replied, “I’m an educator.”
Bush booted him anyway, and Ferris settled in 2002 at the University of North Carolina. There he became senior associate director of The Center for the Study of the American South and taught history and folklore. Up to retirement in 2019, he led seminars in Southern music and Southern literature and the oral tradition.
Gospel singer Mary D. Williams studied with him there. She remembers Ferris starting all classes at 8 a.m. but keeping students alert with an array of guests.
“He’d bring in Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops or Lonnie Bunch (now secretary of the Smithsonian Institution),” Williams says. “He has this huge repertoire of music dating so far back, and his ideas come not just from scholarship but from knowing folks.”
The class read the book Big Fish, by Ferris’s friend, Daniel Wallace.
“We read the book aloud in excerpts, discussed it from the angles of critical thinking and Southernness,” Williams says, “and the next time we met, Wallace was there, talking about his influences.”
Composer-author Bland Simpson has had twin careers for decades, as pianist for the bluegrass band The Red Clay Ramblers and professor of English and creative writing at UNC. He knows Ferris both ways, playing his musical theater piece “Kudzu” at an Oxford conference and watching Ferris teach his daughter at UNC.
“Bill loves fieldwork and sees value in all manner of expression. He’s curious across the board, which made him ideal for the NEH. He has that welcoming quality, that generosity of spirit, that serves him wherever he goes,” Simpson says. “He also gets a great kick out of things that are funny, like Ray Lum’s tall tales. He has full belief in the importance of his enterprise but doesn’t try to make things serious when they aren’t.”
Tom Hanchett, former historian at Levine Museum of the New South, earned his doctorate in history at UNC. He calls Ferris “one of the great coaches and nurturers I’ve met. He has accomplished so much you’d assume he was a type-A, fast-talking person, but his main skill is as a listener. He hung a quote from Alex Haley in his office: ‘Find the good and praise it.’ That’s what Bill does: He listens to students and community members and validates what they’re interested in.”
Hanchett saw Ferris work his magic when the city of Shelby sought to create the Earl Scruggs Center to honor its native son, the greatest American banjo player.
“They brought me in, and I tried to say helpful things. They brought in folks I knew nationally, and they said helpful things, but we couldn’t make it work,” Hanchett says. “Bill called Cissy Anklam, who put together the Newseum in D.C., and Jeff Place, who won his third Grammy this year reissuing recordings for the Smithsonian. They came to this town of 40,000 to sit around the table because Bill said, ‘This is interesting. Y’all will work well together.’”
Ferris believes there’s no mystery to his job: You must be caring, open-minded and patient.
“All people have a story, and they’re waiting for someone to listen,” he says. “The more you interview them, the more comfortable they are. I recorded 50 to 100 hours with Ray Lum, and it was like we became soulmates.
“A lot of (my success) was letting the machine run while people were talking; I would nudge them one way or the other or just let them carry on. When there’s a pregnant pause, (don’t come) in with another question. Let that pause hang there, and almost always, the speaker will come back with things that are unimaginably interesting.”
Ferris says UNC is digitizing 100,000 photographic images for the William R. Ferris Collection in its Southern Folklife Collection. (His mother, hearing this, remarked, “My God! That would be like cleaning out the Augean stables.”) He’s assembling a volume of black-and-white photos shot around the world to complement his 2016 book, The South in Color.
He concedes he’s still obsessive at 78: On a recent trip to Rust College, he photographed the room where he stayed, the soul food restaurant where he ate, the audience at his speech. He does with a cell phone what he once did with a Pentax camera.
“It’s part of my DNA to document everything,” Ferris says. “In many ways, that’s a Southern quality. I always loved the French phrase la vie quotidienne, the everyday life.
“Life is like a patchwork quilt stitched together,” he says. “We may not see at first how the dots are connected. I may not be the person to make those connections. But the more we talk with different people and listen to their voices, the more those connections are there.”
This piece appears in the spring/summer issue of the Davidson Journal magazine.
- March 12, 2021
- Alumni and Family Engagement
- News Headlines
- Lawrence Toppman