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Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues

Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues

by William Ferris

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Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, folklorist William Ferris toured his home state of Mississippi, documenting the voices of African Americans as they spoke about and performed the diverse musical traditions that form the authentic roots of the blues. Now, Give My Poor Heart Ease puts front and center a searing selection of the artistically and emotionally rich


Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, folklorist William Ferris toured his home state of Mississippi, documenting the voices of African Americans as they spoke about and performed the diverse musical traditions that form the authentic roots of the blues. Now, Give My Poor Heart Ease puts front and center a searing selection of the artistically and emotionally rich voices from this invaluable documentary record. Illustrated with Ferris's photographs of the musicians and their communities and including a CD of original music, the book features more than twenty interviews relating frank, dramatic, and engaging narratives about black life and blues music in the heart of the American South.

Here are the stories of artists who have long memories and speak eloquently about their lives, blues musicians who represent a wide range of musical traditions--from one-strand instruments, bottle-blowing, and banjo to spirituals, hymns, and prison work chants. Celebrities such as B. B. King and Willie Dixon, along with performers known best in their neighborhoods, express the full range of human and artistic experience--joyful and gritty, raw and painful.

In an autobiographical introduction, Ferris reflects on how he fell in love with the vibrant musical culture that was all around him but was considered off limits to a white Mississippian during a troubled era. This magnificent volume illuminates blues music, the broader African American experience, and indeed the history and culture of America itself.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

In the 1960s and '70s, American history professor Ferris (Blues from the Delta) crossed and re-crossed Mississippi to document the rich history of its iconic blues music; here, years of work pay off in an illuminating, transporting volume. One of the freest, most elastic musical genres, the blues are based in slave songs and spirituals, and, decades before punk, established the original DIY aesthetic: an aggressively homegrown, independent, and individual sound that reasserts itself with each new telling and teller. That spirit is expertly captured Ferris's collection of testimonies. The unvarnished words of musicians, faith healers, religious leaders, and other Mississippians provide not so much a contiguous history as a series of isolated encounters with the genre's myriad influences, in which views on art, race, religion, piety, and injustice stand on their own feet. A trained folklorist, Ferris skillfully (and invisibly) mimics the casual, immediate nature of blues music, building his own composition from testimony that is in many ways irreducible; those seeking more context will find the final two interviews, with Willie Dixon and B.B. King, provide a more straightforward account of the genre's evolution. An accompanying CD/DVD contains Ferris's original audio recordings and film footage. 42 b&w photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal
Distinguished folklorist and blues scholar Ferris (senior associate director, Ctr. for the Study of the American South, Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) has crafted a captivating and diverse multimedia experience for fans and scholars of the blues and gospel music. Supplementing and expanding upon his 1978 book, Blues from the Delta, he here presents transcriptions of stories he captured via films and recording devices from the 1960s and 1970s of Mississippi blues practitioners, preachers, and Parchman Prison inmates. The enclosed CD and DVD bring the package together with stories, blues songs, and gospel recordings. B.B. King and Willie Dixon are the most famous artists included, but the stories of desperately poor sharecroppers and ex-inmates are just as engrossing. The comprehensive bibliography is a great resource. In addition to Ferris's books, libraries may want to consider Alan Lomax's classic The Land Where the Blues Began. VERDICT Ferris's new book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the blues or Southern history. [See also "Editors' Fall Picks," p. 24.]—Todd Spires, Bradley Univ., Peoria, IL
From the Publisher
Ferris' fieldwork proves to be every bit as important and impressive as the now-famous Mississippi recordings made by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. . . . Ferris' audio and video recordings . . . are unpolished gems, further preserving pieces of Mississippi's musical past that may have otherwise been forgotten.—The Vicksburg Post

Product Details

The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
H. Eugene and Lillian Youngs Lehman Series
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Barnes & Noble
File size:
6 MB

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2009 William Ferris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-9852-9


When I, a white Mississippian, worked as a folklorist in my home state in the sixties and seventies, I set out to study African American music, but the people I met opened my eyes to much more than music. Each of the musicians I was privileged to record—through interviews, sound recordings, still photography, and film—revealed the fabric of life in their families and communities in powerful ways. By featuring their voices firsthand in this book, I attempt to give the reader the opportunity to hear, from the inside as much as possible, voices, stories, and music that are the roots of the blues. By trying to capture the faces and surroundings of these musicians through photographs and films that complement and deepen their recorded voices in important ways, I hope to make portraits of the speakers that respect their entire lives and their culture.

These African American musicians speak about and perform musical traditions that are the authentic roots of black music. Hailing from the Delta, as well as from northeastern, central, and southern Mississippi, these musicians represent a wide range of musical traditions that include one-strand instruments, bottle-blowing, fife and drum, hymns, spirituals, the banjo, the fiddle, and prison work chants, all of which helped define the blues.

In this volume, richly varied musical worlds are presented through the voices of the artists themselves. Their narratives are edited from field recordings I made in each artist's home and community. The artistically and emotionally rich profiles of musicians that emerge illuminate both the African American experience and the history and culture of America itself.

But here, in the introduction, I will tell you something about my own background and why seeking out the voices of the blues was so important to me. I grew up during the forties and fifties on my family's farm, located fifteen miles southeast of Vicksburg in Warren County. While my father owned the farm and black families lived and worked for him on the land, both my family and these black families had ancestral roots in the state that dated back to the nineteenth century.

Before telephones and television arrived in the fifties, members of the community either walked or drove to Vicksburg on a gravel road. Today, local residents still orient their lives in relation to Fisher Ferry Road, which passes through the farm and connects it to the outside world. Travelers either head "up the road" to Vicksburg or "down the road" to the Big Black River. Residents often study travelers on the road and speculate aloud on where they are headed. Drivers, in turn, blow their horns and wave at friends who sit on porches that face the road.

On the farm, my family had daily, if not hourly, interactions with black families in our home and in the fields. Their lives and ours were intimately linked. The farm was in fact inhabited by many more black people than white people, and in important ways, I always felt that it was a black community. Our nearest white neighbors—George and Clara Rummage, whom we called Uncle George and Aunt Clara—lived three miles up the road.

When my parents drove to a party in Vicksburg on a Saturday night, a black woman named Virgil Simpson babysat us. My four siblings and I were quite young, and I remember my parents returned one night around midnight to find us all dancing with Virgil with the radio turned up full blast. They sent us straight to bed, but I never forgot the association of music and dance with freedom.

Some days Virgil walked with us through pastures where we looked for guinea eggs that we found in nests along fencerows. She carefully took the eggs out of the nests with a spoon so as not to leave the scent of her hands. In the summer, we went out with Virgil, Mother, and others to gather blackberries in large briar patches. At the end of an afternoon, we had filled a large washtub with berries that we later ate in pies and jam.

My mother and my father taught us that we should always respect others regardless of their race. My family differed from many white families, southern or otherwise, in their views about race.

I remember that Jessie Cooper, a young man who worked for my father, contracted polio while visiting a family near our farm. When my father learned of Jessie's condition, he drove to Jessie's home with "Little" Isaiah Brown and Lou Vell Vickers, and together they carried Jessie out to the car and drove him to the Vicksburg hospital. Jessie recalls that his medical bills were forgiven by the hospital because his disease was polio.

My first sense of the existence of racism came at the age of five, when I entered Jefferson Davis Academy, an all-white public school in Warren County where three teachers—Clara Stevens, Lucille Hilderbrand, and Gladys Barfield—taught all six grades. My friends Amos Griffin and William Appleton, who were children of black families living on the farm, stayed on the farm and attended Rose Hill School, where one teacher—Lou Roan—taught all six grades.

While traveling home on the school bus one afternoon, we passed a black child riding a mule on the side of the road. Several children leaned out the window and yelled racist epithets at the rider, scaring him and his mule terribly. I can only imagine how he felt, and I know that the scene frightened me and still haunts me today.

Another time, one of my classmates visited me on the farm, and when he saw the Rose Hill schoolteacher's new car, he remarked, "That's an awful nice car for a nigger." And when my father improved the homes of families who worked for him on the farm, my barber in Vicksburg casually remarked while cutting my hair, "I hear your daddy is fixing up those nigger houses on his farm." My parents made it clear to me and my siblings that we were never to use that word. Its use always reminded me that my family and I were different.

While the ugliness of racism lingered nearby, my siblings and I, as children, shared a world that was filled with natural beauty, mystery, and wonder. Mother took us on walks in the woods and showed us green moss beneath trees where, she explained, fairies came out at night and danced. At picnics on the farm, she read us stories that stirred our imagination. She took us swimming in Hamer Bayou on hot summer days. Once each week she insisted we remain quiet while she listened to classical music on the radio on the Firestone Hour.

A childhood friend named Tommy Curtis and I created an imaginary world we called Wolf Town that was located in a badly eroded part of a pasture. It was a secret place where we imagined adventures that we later described to our parents and siblings.

During the summer my younger brother Grey and I worked with the men on the farm to bale hay, loaded the bales on a truck, and stacked them in the barn to feed cattle and horses in the winter. Those were long, hot days broken up by noon dinners of fried chicken cooked by our black housekeeper Mary Gordon and washed down with glasses of her sweet iced tea. Those days were our father's way of teaching us the value of hard work.

Grey and I both raised 4-H Club calves that we proudly exhibited at the Miss-Lou Fair, an agricultural show held each year at the Vicksburg fairgrounds. We had bought two registered Angus calves and, for a year, had groomed and taught them to stand to impress the judges. Growing up on the farm, I benefited from a rich web of friendships with carpenters, cowboys, doctors, electricians, farmers, hunters, lawyers, loggers, mechanics, painters, politicians, and teachers.

Grey taught me to use a camera, and together we set up a small darkroom where he showed me how to develop black-and-white negatives and to process prints. In that room I watched the images in this book appear on sheets of print paper as they steeped in the tray of processing fluid. While Grey encouraged me in my career as a folklorist, he also loved to tease me about how I was paid to collect stories and songs, saying, "I never knew anyone who went further on less than my brother."

Though we rarely think about it, every member of my family loves to tell stories. Storytelling runs in our blood, and when we gather for holidays, the stories begin. They start over breakfast and do not stop until we retire to sleep. We push back sleep, not wanting to miss the end of a story.

For many years, each morning I have spoken by phone with members of my family to get their latest stories. As early morning light fell across fields on the farm, I would speak with my mother, Shelby Ferris, as she drank her first cup of coffee. After getting her news, I would then call my brother Grey in his truck as he and "the men"—William Appleton, Dickie Thomas, Joe Thomas, and John Henry Wright—headed into the fields. Those conversations tug at my heart and remind me that while I may live and work in other places, my real home is the farm. It is my spiritual compass.

So it is not surprising that the first stories I recorded in the late fifties were from families on the farm. These recordings led me up the road to Vicksburg and from there into the Mississippi Delta in the sixties. My Mississippi Delta recordings were the subject of my doctoral dissertation in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and later were the focus of my teaching. In effect, I did what I loved, and—to the amazement of my parents and their friends—I found employment.

Throughout my life, I have traveled with a camera and tape recorder and tried to capture the spoken word in all its mystery and beauty through tales such as the ones presented in this book, tales that are both moving and chilling. As a teenager, I began to photograph speakers and record their stories to preserve the precious and already fleeting world of the black community on the farm around me. As a college student, I was drawn into the civil rights movement and saw my photographs and recordings as a way to honor a proud culture that stood outside the academy. I saw my work as both a political and a cultural statement. Whites often asked why I spent so much time with blacks. The implication of their question was that black lives were not worthy of serious study. In the sixties black civil rights activists faced down murderous powers, and my work as a folklorist, while it did not begin to compare in terms of the danger those activists faced, sometimes also took place in threatening circumstances. I often saw Ku Klux Klan signs and graffiti along the roads that I traveled. For a white southerner, the work I did was considered taboo.

The worlds of the Mississippi Delta blues musicians whom I recorded and filmed as a graduate student in folklore in the late sixties was dramatically different from those I had known on the farm where I grew up. With angry voices, speakers described the conditions they had endured in Delta towns like Clarksdale and Leland. In these towns, I recorded musicians and their friends who gathered like a family each Saturday night at blues house parties.

I was drawn to the voices and stories of these families. My recordings, photographs, and films captured their faces, their homes, and their communities in ways that were unplanned. One speaker led me to others, and together they introduced me to a world that was foreign to my own. I entered their homes as a guest and promised that I would attempt to tell their stories faithfully and fully. They understood my purpose and generously shared their stories and songs with me. The trust these families bestowed on me was both surprising and understandable.

Over the past forty years, their stories have been an important influence on my work as a folklorist. While teaching at Jackson State University, Yale University, the University of Mississippi, and the University of North Carolina and while chairing the National Endowment for the Humanities, I continued to hear their voices. This book brings these stories together to create a portrait of a people, their time, and their place in history. Their tales seem timeless because the struggles, hopes, and suffering of black families are familiar themes in our culture. From slavery to Reconstruction, from the Jim Crow era to the civil rights movement, from the 1927 Mississippi River flood to Hurricane Katrina, tales endure in black families and resonate with the power of oral tradition. Throughout black history, these stories persist, and their telling becomes a means of survival. Today, as Barack Obama assumes the mantle of our nation's first black president, this history takes a dramatic turn that will inspire stories and music in exciting new ways. It is a moment many have dreamed of.

My parents, William and Shelby Ferris, and my siblings, Shelby, Hester, Grey, and Martha, understood the journey that led me to this book, and their support set us apart from other white families in our community. While an undergraduate student at Davidson College from 1960 to 1964, I helped organize civil rights marches in Charlotte, North Carolina. Other Davidson students and I met on campus with Allard Lowenstein and James Farmer and tried to desegregate both the college and local churches. During this time, my parents received an anonymous postcard telling them that I was "dating niggers."

My siblings and several other local white students met with Robert Moses in Vicksburg during the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. My father was the only white adult who joined us. He was genuinely curious and questioned Moses about the civil rights movement and his work. Moses told my father that the meeting was the first time he had sat across the table from and had a conversation with a white Mississippian. After that evening, Ku Klux Klan flyers were thrown on the ground near our mailbox.

In Vicksburg, there were several places where we could speak openly about the movement. One was the COFO house, an old home in a black neighborhood rented by the Council of Federated Organizations, where we visited with Paul Cowan and others during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. We also attended services at the Anshe Chesed Temple, where, after the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, Rabbi Alvin Blinder declared, "When they kill three civil rights workers, and the Jews outnumber the blacks, it is time we speak out."

When I was discharged from the army as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War in 1969, my family again understood and supported me. After dismissal from the military, I taught at Jackson State University and lived in Jackson on Guynes Street, two doors from the home where Medgar Evers was assassinated. My parents and siblings visited my home, met my black friends, and respected and blessed my journey. They understood that I inherited my commitment to education from generations of teachers in our family. I found that the natural focus for my study and teaching was the people and places I knew as I was growing up.

The farm has always been the center of my life, and the families who lived there shaped me in enduring ways. My roots on the farm were grounded at the dinner table, where Mary Gordon cared for our family throughout her lifetime. I remember her voice and the rich language of her stories and hymns that I heard each day from childhood. Our last visit was in a nursing home in Vicksburg shortly before her death. Her family sat with her, and when I rose to leave, she hugged me and said, "You know, you are my white child." I answered, "I know." Looking back, I realize that our worlds were so very different, but we connected in a special way during that final visit in the nursing home.

The farm is where I first heard the voices of my own family and of the black community in which we lived. I have long wrestled with how to connect myself to these stories. How can I animate the voices of the storytellers? How can I explain the motivation that led me to record their worlds? These recordings were my lifeline, and I made myself promise that I would never forget the speakers who taught me in such deeply moving, sometimes frightening ways.


Excerpted from GIVE MY POOR HEART EASE by WILLIAM FERRIS Copyright © 2009 by William Ferris. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
I reveled in these stories.—Toni Morrison

Meet the Author

William Ferris is Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ferris coedited the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and is the author of Blues from the Delta. Rolling Stone magazine has named him among the top ten professors in the United States. In 2010, Ferris received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

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