The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday August 5th

UNC folklorist shares his love for blues music

Recalls his time in Mississippi

Bill Ferris, UNC History professor, shared several stories from his book "Give My Poor Heart Ease" in the Davis Library Gallery on March 16, 2010.
Buy Photos Bill Ferris, UNC History professor, shared several stories from his book "Give My Poor Heart Ease" in the Davis Library Gallery on March 16, 2010.

It is the most beautiful of all music, and without it, no other popular music would exist.

Or at least that’s what folklorist William Ferris thinks when it comes to blues music.

In a lecture Tuesday night, Ferris discussed his opinions about blues music and culture and how his experiences with them in Mississippi in the 1960s and 1970s influenced his new book, “Give My Poor Heart Ease.”

In his book, Ferris, a noted scholar in the field of folklore and a Mississippi native, allows blues musicians to tell their own stories.

“I decided to change the book’s perspective from that of a white scholar talking about music to that of black speakers describing their lives and how music shaped their worlds,” Ferris said.

About 100 people listened as Ferris recalled various experiences and people from his journey through Mississippi.

He read vivid passages from his book that made some audience members feel as if they were traveling Highway 61 with him.

Ferris’ journey took place at a dangerous time in the Deep South, when racial groups were segregated. Ferris said he was determined to cross those lines, and was welcomed with open arms.

“They fed me and took me into their homes,” he said. “I felt very welcome and comfortable.”

Ferris’ love for music started at a young age when his black housekeeper Mary Gordon began taking him to church. As he listened and sang along to hymns and spirituals, he noticed that there was no documentation of the music.

“When the people left, the music left with them,” Ferris said.

Ferris began to search for the music he had heard in church and it was during this search that he first encountered blues music.

“One blues musician told me that if a singer wants to cross over from sacred music to blues, he simply replaces ‘my God’ with ‘my baby’ and continues singing the same song.”

After writing his dissertation for his doctorate in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, which he later adapted into his first book “Blues from the Delta,” Ferris decided to step aside and let black voices speak for themselves in his new book.

Ferris has taught at Jackson State University, Yale University and the University of Mississippi. He currently teaches at UNC in the American studies department.

“He very much gets out of the way of his material and shows a humility and reverence towards his work and the people and communities he works with,” said Chris Wells, a third-year graduate student majoring in music who attended the lecture on Tuesday night.

During his journey, Ferris befriended numerous Mississippian blues musicians, including James Thomas, B.B. King, Otha Turner and Willie Dixon. King is the only of those musicians still living.

“It was a life-changing experience that set me off on a journey that I am still on today,” he said.

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