William Ferris’ Stories
The Writings and Rhythms of Southern Life
"Even if you have money and are living in a rich neighborhood, there is a time when you feel bad, and that is the blues.” So counseled bluesman Bobby Rush in 1987 to William Ferris, then a professor at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), and author of Blues from the Delta. The interview was in Ferris’ office.
“It could be the president of the United States,” continues Rush. “He has the blues when things are not going right.” Back then Ronald Reagan was bruised by the Iran-Contra affair, but Rush was speaking universally of any president. “It is hard times. That is the blues to me. I think any man can have them,” he continues. “The bluesman tells a story, and the preacher tells a story. I am not saying that the bluesman is the only one to tell a story.”
Storytelling is central to Southern life; the intersection of words and rhythms, how people speak and sing are rituals Bill Ferris absorbed growing up on a large farm outside of Vicksburg, Miss. “The story is the inescapable net that binds southerners together,” he writes in The Storied South: Voices of Southern Writers and Artists, a gathering of oral histories and a companion CD from his friendships with writers, musicians and artists on a career path to Washington, D.C., as chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, that took him, finally, to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a director of the Center for the Study of the American South.
(Ferris will be in New Orleans on Sept. 22 for a gathering of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.)
“Southern writers translate the story into fiction,” Ferris writes. “Musicians transform story into song. And photographers and painters capture story in images.”
“I think a series of photographs is like a novel,“ explains the photographer William Eggleston, whose works hang in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. “If a person went slowly through that body of work, it would be like reading a novel. … Some of it deals with the way a sign is held up with wires, or the way unplanned architecture comes about, like a grocery store that no one designed.”
The musicality of language is a leitmotif dancing across these pages. Louisiana author Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, seems to be riffing off Bobby Rush when he says: “I try to write what I hear. That is all I try to do. I never think about the difference between the written and the oral word. I just write as truly as I can – as simply as I can – to communicate with anyone who reads my book.”
Bobby Rush, Oxford, Miss., 1987
Benny Andrews, a painter prominently featured at the Ogden Museum, tells Ferris about his childhood in a large sharecropping family in rural Georgia, as if he were one of Gaines’ characters. “We would go from sunup to sundown in flat lands of cotton. Just as far you could see would be cotton. It would be hoe, and you would be doing this repetitive thing. You would go from one end of a row to the others, and that would be just unbelievably long.” He continues, “You had to do something, something to keep your mind occupied. I would look up at the clouds, and I got to a place where I could make pictures out of clouds … making pictures up. Sometimes I would stop and draw in the sand. And at night – when I would go home – I would draw some of those things I had seen in the clouds.”
The profiles Ferris draws from interviews with novelists Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Margaret Walker Alexander, critic Cleanth Brooks and historian C. Vann Woodward – all now deceased – broaden this cultural travelogue, with grace notes in Ferris’ photographs of his subjects, drawn together in thematic unity many years later. The book by University of North Carolina Press is handsomely illustrated and designed.
Ferris’s idea of an essential South, layered by a narrative sensibility in music, literature and the visual arts, sings to the better angels of our nature. Most of the Southern states have jumped on the cultural economy bandwagon, doing their best to market the food, festivals, musical concerts and preserved architecture as a sign of how good prevails.
Yet reading this remarkable book one realizes, too, that a brooding, unsettled nature about the South is still sadly with us.
“They cut down the trees that made the country beautiful,” Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King’s Men, laments of his native Kentucky. “They plowed over the fields. It is all mechanized now. There has been a decline, I believe, in human values.”
But we should give the final word to Bill Ferris, whose oxygen supply is fraught with optimism. The large farm where he grew up was a metaphysical principle in his family of readers and avocational writers “who encouraged me in my career as a folklorist and student of the South,” he writes. “As I tried to build bridges between black people and white people, between formally educated and folk worlds, the memory of families on the farm inspired me to tell their stories and through them the story of the South.”
“In the South, we have an inherited identification with place. It still matters. Life changes, as it always will and should. But I think the heritage of place is still too important to let slide away.”
– Eudora Welty to William Ferris