In 1993, New Orleans Museum of Art put on a grand folk art exhibition called “Passionate Visions” and invited William Ferris, a founder of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, to give a lecture. Ferris’ Blues from the Delta is a major book in the field. His topic that day was the linkage between American black music and outsider art. He wore a nice blue suit. He unpacked a guitar. Not many professors tote guitars, but this one grew up on a farm outside Vicksburg where music was elemental. Perhaps the years he spent as co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989, 1634 pages, weight of a five-star baby) boosted Ferris’ inspiration quotient. In the lecture he roamed the strings with mellifluous ease, spinning off comments on the art with shards of song; casting his own cultural soundtrack. As speeches go, it was a real show-stopper.
A few years later, Ferris went to Washington D.C. as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In 2001 he moved to the University of North Carolina as an Eminent Professor of History. Ferris’ vision of the South as a spiritual topography – a map of cultures with overlapping roots in land and faith, story and song – extends from hillbilly hollows and zones of Zydeco to the novels of Gaines and Faulkner. The South is shaped by a living past where music, literature and visual art till a shared terrain of memory. Terms like “cultural tourism” echo the Encyclopedia’s themes, far from H.L. Mencken’s view of the South as “Sahara of the Bozart.”
Ferris’ new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues,is a kind of chronicler’s odyssey, casting profiles from interviews culled in past years as he traveled though fields and towns. “While my father owned the farm and black families lived and worked for him on the land, both my family and these black families had ancestral roots in the state that dated back to the 19th century.” Ferris’ plain song prose works like a melodic line set to the counter-rhythms of his subjects’ poetic voices. At every turn, you realize that a man is listening to the story being told.
Here is Mary Gordon from a community called Rose Hill, the community where Ferris grew up:
I dreamed of a vision when I was trying to pray. It seemed to me like I left home wandering and I got in a little roadway. And this little road led me to a crossroads. I used to love to dance. And when I got to the crossroads, I heard guitar picking. It seemed to me like it was a house on a hill, and they was picking guitars up there. They was out on the porch trying to tempt me in. It was a real fat lady out there. She was just dancing and twisting, you know.
The dream trail continues, to a gate, behind which stand “three great black bulls, and the road I wanted to take was the one those bulls were standing in. … I wanted to get in that road. So I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know what to do.” Scared of the bulls, she climbs up anyway “to sit astraddle of the gate … and I looked the other way where the music was. Something told me I got to go this way.” Like a character out of Dante on a mythic quest, she admits: “I was trembling. I was so scared.” But she makes it past the bulls to a wheat field.
She continues, “When I got there, every time I’d make a step, it was a big snake would rise up on this side. I had a stick, and I’d hit it. I’d take another step, and one would rise on this side … After a while I looked, and I saw a man come out of the sun when the sun rose. He was riding a white horse, and his horse was leaping. The man on the white horse had long pretty hair, and his horse had a pretty mane … When he was taking me up on that horse, the snakes was rearing up at my feet. He just lifted me up and carried me to a great big building.”
The building is a church. “And when the door opened, I walked in. I said, ‘Howdy.’ The whole building was full of people. They said, ‘Howdy, Mother.’’’
The settings of the stories range from churches to juke joints, prisons and small town and epiphanies that follow the music, blues and sacred, as the episodes build into a rousing epic of the soul. Published by University of North Carolina Press, Give My Poor Heart Ease includes a sleeve with a CD of selected songs and DVD of a documentary Ferris produced – a major achievement.