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'And the award goes to...' UNC professor nominated for two Grammys

Bill Ferris Grammy
Bill Ferris, a UNC emeritus history and folklore professor, poses with his box set, "Voices of Mississipi," in the hallway of the Carolina Inn on Friday, Feb. 1, 2018 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Ferris is nominated for two Grammy Awards for "Voices of Mississippi," a box set consisting of a 120-page book, featured essays by various authors, two CDs of blues and gospel recordings, one CD of interviews and storytelling, and a DVD of documentary films. "Voices of Mississippi" has been nominated for Best Historical Album" and Best Liner Notes.

A UNC professor has been nominated for two Grammys for his box set, titled "Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented." 

Bill Reynolds Ferris, the eminent professor emeritus of history and senior associate director for the Center for the Study of the American South, received word about the Historical Album and Best Album Notes nominations in early January.

Ferris said he could not believe the news when Lance and April Ledbetter of Dust-to-Digital, the company based in Atlanta that produced "Voices of Mississippi," called. 

“It was kind of like I was on a cloud because the Grammys are the Nobel Prize of music. They go to names like Lady Gaga, Bob Dylan and The Beatles,” he said. 

However, some of Ferris' former students were not shocked. Emily Wallace, art director and deputy editor for Southern Cultures, said she was not surprised about the nominations. Aaron Smithers, another former student and Southern Folklife Collection assistant at the Wilson Special Collections Library and University Libraries, said he was not surprised by the nomination either. 

Ferris' box set is the culmination of a life’s work – a journey that started in Mississippi. 

Life on a small farm in Mississippi was isolating, Ferris said. However, it was there at a church called Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church where he found his passion for music. As a four-year-old, Ferris went to Sunday church services and learned to sing the hymns. He fell in love with the blues. 

“I feel like blues is a music that tells the truth. It paints a powerful image. It’s a foundation for all modern music,” he said. 

After receiving a camera for Christmas at age 12, Ferris began taking photos and recording the services as a way to preserve his childhood memories. He said he wanted to capture the voices of his friends, some of whom are featured in "Voices of Mississippi."

At Davidson College, Ferris reaffirmed his love for music. His college experience was shaped by marches for the Civil Rights Movement and marches protesting the Vietnam War. At the marches, he played songs such as "We Shall Overcome." Stumbling upon records housed at Davidson from the Library of Congress on blues singers solidified what he wanted to do in life. 

“I felt like I was doing something that was close to my heart, but it was also connected to the political and social worlds," Ferris said.

After Davidson, Ferris completed his masters in English at Northwestern University, participated in a fellowship at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and received his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. 

The process of creating "Voices of Mississippi" took 10 years. Choosing the gospel and blues songs, writing the essays and creating the film was an arduous process, Ferris said. 

But he has no regrets. The box set acts as a time machine for Ferris. It connects the dots of his life, he said.

“These are the crown jewels of my life’s work," Ferris said. "When I see their face and hear their voices, it’s like we are right back there in the 1960s. I remember the moments when we filmed and recorded."

When asked about his favorite part about the box set, Ferris was unable to choose. 

“That’s like choosing my favorite child," he said.

Ferris' work is housed in the Southern Folklife Collection in Wilson Library. It took a team of four young women nicknamed “Ferris Wheels” four to five months to organize all of his work. 

"Voices of Mississippi" is the culmination of Ferris' life. However, if you told him 15 years ago that he would have two Grammy nominations, Ferris would have a witty response for you: “You need to have your head examined. I could never have imagined my work being acknowledged in that way.”

Ferris will find out if his box set wins a Grammy or two on Feb. 10. Ferris plans on attending the ceremony with his wife, Marcie Cohen Ferris; his daughter, Virginia Ferris and his son-in-law, Chase Hautaie.

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