Ferris discovered blues as a teenager in Vicksburg, Mississippi. For the next forty plus years he photographed, recorded, and filmed blues and blues artists in his home state. Some of his best work can be found in the book Blues From The Delta.
In a soon to be released retrospective of his career, a new book called Mississippi Blues: Voices and Roots , Ferris explains:
...what led a privileged, white Mississippian to work with black musicians in the 1960s. Drawn to the Civil Rights Movement as an undergraduate student, I recorded the voices and music of black musicians whose lives I felt were missing in American and southern history. These artists spoke and sang about violence, about suffering, about love with an eloquence that resonated in my ear. They taught me about worlds that were both at my doorstep and far removed from my own experience.What began as a fascination with the delta blues culture evolved to become his life's calling.
Ferris and Judy Peiser co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis, Tennessee and, with Charles Reagan Wilson, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He and Wilson are co-editors of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. The book earned them a nomination for the Pulitzer.
Along with other blues researchers Mack McCormick, Jim O'Neal and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Ferris helped put blues music and culture into context for the rest of the world.
You can see some of what William Ferris saw in his documentary films like Give My Poor Heart Ease. This and other of his documentaries can be viewed on line at the Folkstreams website , and with the release of his new book, for the first time they also will be available on DVD.
There are some who question why we are so willing to applaud those who "discover" the artist as much as the artist himself. They call it celebrating the milkman, instead of the milk.
William Ferris' work has put a lot of milk on a lot of tables for over 40 years. And for that we should be thankful. One person who believes that is Dick Gordon of American Public Radio. Gordon's show is called "The Story." He spoke with Ferris last Christmas about blues Christmas music as William Ferris did what he does best, he told stories. And they played a lot of great blues music.
The interview is still available online, so if you want to spend a little of your Christmas with the milkman, you can. And you even get some free milk to go along with it.
(Click here to hear Dick Gordon interview William Ferris about Blues Christmas music)
(Click to hear NPR story on Folkstreams)