The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday May 19th

Q&A with author, professor William Ferris

William Ferris, a UNC History Professor, talks about his new book "Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voice of the Mississippi Blues."
Buy Photos William Ferris, a UNC History Professor, talks about his new book "Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voice of the Mississippi Blues."

Professor William Ferris will give a lecture Friday based on his latest book “Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues.” This event is in celebration of Black History Month.

Staff writer Rebecca Pollack sat down with Ferris to talk about his book and his life growing up in Mississippi.


Time: 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Location: The Friday Center

DAILY TAR HEEL: What was the inspiration for this book?

WILLIAM FERRIS: I was inspired by growing up on a farm in Mississippi and hearing spirituals in a little black church as a child.

As I grew older I realized there were no hymnals in the church, and when the families were no longer there, the music would disappear.

In high school, I began to record and photograph the church and the music and sermons, and that led later to photographing and interviewing blues singers and to a career as a folklorist and teaching.

Several years ago I decided to go back and publish the interviews I did with musicians with pictures and to edit those so that each voice would have its own chapter in the book with photographs and accompaniment.

DTH: Mississippi is your home state, so how did living there influence your desire to write this book?

WF: I felt that without me as a folklorist, these lives would be forgotten after their death.
I tell my students an African proverb that says, “When an old man or woman dies, a library burns to the ground.”

These people are my libraries, and their wisdom is what I try to share with my students in my classes.

DTH: What were the musicians like that you talked to?

WF: They were very thoughtful, sensitive people who took time to visit with me and to explain their music and their lives.

DTH: What kinds of interesting stories did they have?

WF: They told stories about their childhood, about religious conversions — seeing Jesus. They told stories about racial violence and their struggle as black people to survive white Mississippi.

DTH: Why is this book important to history and anyone who likes blues music?

WF: This book is important because it is a window into lives and souls of black musicians whose world is rarely captured within the library.

Their music and their lives are part of oral tradition, and this book captures that tradition through the printed interviews, the photographs, the sound recordings and the films, which are all included in the book.

DTH: You say that this culture was off limits to you. What was it like being a white Mississippian who enjoyed this aspect of culture?

WF: I felt very privileged. I felt I had been given a special blessing to be allowed into the homes of the musicians and to share meals and to party with them.

The culture was off limits because of the Jim Crow apartheid system that existed in Mississippi in the 1960s. It was dangerous for white and black people to be together during that period.

DTH: How was it inspiring, talking to the musicians?

WF: It was inspiring to me because they opened my eyes to a world I had never known as a white Mississippian.

They led me to a different space, and through the work I did for this book, I discovered those worlds, which were very powerful.

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