Through personal stories about the roots of blues music, William Ferris documented his home state of Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s.
A folklorist and professor of history at UNC, Ferris is now showing his photography until Nov. 30 at the Center for the Study of the American South at the Love House and Hutchins Forum on East Franklin Street.
These photographs and their stories are bundled in Ferris’ book, “Give My Poor Heart Ease,” the result of Ferris’ touring Mississippi.
He documented memories and voices of African-Americans speaking about and performing blues music and other authentic musical traditions.
“I grew up on a farm in Vicksburg, Mississippi. I learned the hymns in Rose Hill Church and soon discovered that everyone sung from memory. In order to save those hymns, these people had to be recorded,” Ferris said.
“I started on a journey to document and record the worlds of these people around the state.”
Ferris recorded both ordinary people and artists. One of his subjects is world-famous blues artist B.B. King.
“I never planned to meet B.B. King,” Ferris said.
“At Yale University, I gave a talk about him, and a young woman came up to me and asked if I wanted to meet King. I was thrilled.”
King donated an entire record collection to Ferris’ archive.
“You can go much deeper into the story by listening to their music,” Ferris said about the CD and DVD that come with his book.
“It opens the door to their world in a very significant way.”
His enthusiasm about his subjects and authenticity of the photographs have inspired students.
“I like the way the photos feel unstaged, as if you would open a door and get a brief glimpse of the world these people inhabit,” said Caroline Hatwell, an American Studies major from King’s College, London.
“I would love to do a trip like this; there’s so much fascinating folklore in this country.”
The collection has also served some students as a guide to Southern blues music.
“Professor Ferris’ photos are a firsthand look into the world of Mississippi blues,” said Frank O’Hale, also an American Studies major, in an e-mail.
“They show an unedited view of the South, of the people who created and shaped an iconic form of American music.”
But the ultimate goal of the collection is to keep a record of that unique culture.
“These voices will be remembered,” Ferris said.
“That was the pledge I gave these people when we met, that I would tell their story, so their lives will never be forgotten.”
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