Sunday, September 17, 2017

Folklore Specialist Tours State Recording Heritage

Billy Skelton - (Jackson, MS) Clarion Ledger - June 6, 1971.

James Thomas

The rich and vivid language of Mississippians, familiar to many in the fiction of William Faulkner and other great writers of the state, is now being collected and preserved in the films, tapes and books of folklorist Dr. William R. "Bill" Ferris Jr. of Jackson, a professor of English and folklore at Jackson State College.

In this contribution to folk literature, the people tell their own stories in their own ways, with and without musical accompaniment.

"I just let them discuss what-ever they remember or think is important about their experiences," Dr. Ferris said.

He recalled that William Faulkner once said that "I listen to people in my head, and they start talking, and I just write what they say."

While Faulkner wrote it from memory, Ferris reproduces it from tape.

The folklore specialist has finished or has in production three books, about a half dozen films and three records.

Dr. Ferris thinks there is "a very basic relationship" between Mississippi's astounding literary output, in particular the work of Faulkner and Eudora Welty, and the fascinating folk-lore in the state.

He called attention to the conversation of the people in Miss Welty's stories and her fine ear for the language of Mississippi folk.


"I think folklore traditions, both the folk tale and the mu-sic, the superstitions, the whole pattern of life in our state, lend themselves to writing," he stated.

One Objective of the young professor from Warren County is to develop a folklore "awareness" that might encourage more young writers. If these writers could continue "to explore and develop these traditions, we could have a new tradition of literary creation," he believes.

Dr. Ferris thinks it can be consciously undertaken as he said it was in Ireland through the efforts of such writers as William Butler Yeates.

Unfortunately, he said, as people, become more sophisticated and educated they tend to scorn or reject the rural, non-literary traditions, being embarrassed by their own roots in the soil. He thinks Mississippi's culture is the richest around, and he wants to encourage more respect for it.

Dr. Ferris doesn't discredit the "high" culture of the university literary tradition—saying he was drawn to in English literature first and through it he became interested in folk literature—but he pointed out that the "low" culture of oral literature is seldom touched upon.


One person who did touch upon it was one of his boyhood idols, Alan Lomax, the folklorist who came into Mississippi as a youngster with his father, John Lomax, and later alone and recorded Negro blues, field hollers, prison songs and gospel music a generation ago.

The younger Lomax, who also wrote "Mr. Jelly Roll," a book about Jelly Roll Morton (who played the piano in Mississippi from time to time in his hey-day), is now at Columbia University where he is cataloging folklore from around the world.

Dr. Ferris, reared on a farm in the Jeff Davis community near Vicksburg, became interested in folklore as a youth and made his first recordings on his home place.

He had gone to Negro services at the Rose Hill Baptist Church near his home and be-come interested in spirituals, and while a student at Davidson College, he started recording folk singers.

After getting a bachelor's degree at Davidson, he obtained his master's degree at North-western University and then proceeded to the University of Pennsylvania where he got his doctor's degree. His thesis topic? "Mississippi Folklore," what else?


Along the way he studied for a year at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, on a Rotary Foundation Scholarship.

He met his French-born wife, Josette, while at Pennsylvania where she was studying on a Fulbright Scholarship. She now accompanies him on his journeys across Mississippi and collaborates in some of the writing and recording. Mrs. Ferris is front Etivey, France. near Dijon.

A photographer, musician (guitar), film-maker and writer as well as professor and folklorist, Dr. Ferris, now 29, is the author of "Blues From the Delta" published this spring by Studio Vista, a London publisher. He also is the author of "Mississippi Black Folklore" being published this month by the University and College Press of Mississippi at Hattiesburg.

His summer plans include work on a study of the folk tale tradition in Mississippi which he expects the University of Pennsylvania Press to publish, probably in 1972.

He has been collecting folk-lore of both blacks and whites in Mississippi, with the accounts on tape covering traditions over the last 50 years.

Out of about 200 interviews he expects to select the 20 best ones, with one chapter devoted to each.

He will give a brief introduction and turn 'em loose. Using what he calls the "vacuum cleaner" approach, Dr. Ferris asks his subjects if they have any tales to tell and in-quires about what things were like when they were growing up.

He lets them talk freely, going in whatever direction they desire. He has had no trouble at all getting Mississippians to talk about themselves.


Asked how he selected his story tellers, Dr. Ferris said he has been traveling Mississippi highways since 1964 .and has been able to talk "to people who knew people," one contact leading to another.

He had met many of them in his work on blues singers, on which he has produced three records.

Dr. Ferris wants to do an entire series on records or per-haps albums of singers and tale tellers, partly to compare styles.

His most ambitious film so far is a 16 millimeter blues film which has been shown at the National Institute of Mental Health meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1969, the American Folklore Society in Los Angeles in 1970 and at the Mississippi Folklore Society meeting at Ole Miss in 1971.

Entitled "Delta Blues Singer: James 'Sonny Ford' Thomas," the film portrait is devoted to the music and life style of Thomas.


Dr. Ferris said he chose the blues singer because he rep-resents "the full expression of the richness of Black Delta culture."

Thomas' music, he said, is "gut-bucket blues" which is characterized by an "unsophisticated directness with which it deals with sex and suffering."

Proceeds of the rentals and sales of the movie, he said, go to the family of Thomas, which also includes the singer's wife and 10 children.

Thomas will be seen in the premiere later this year of the Folkroots series on WMAA (Channel 29).

His other films include a number of Super 8 films, one on blues history, one on religious services of black people (mostly of Primitive, Sanctified sects in which tambourines, guitars and dancing in the aisles is com-mon), one on baptizing’s, one on prison work chants, and one on a white basket weaver near Du-rant who makes baskets of white oak strips.


He and his wife are working on a 16 millimeter documentary on a small fife and drum band near Como. The fifes are made from canes.

The sound produced by the group is in Ferris' opinion the "most African" in this country and that he thinks it is of special interest to anthropologists.

The study or library of the Ferris home at 2241 Guynes is stuffed with the harvest from his expeditions into the interior of Mississippi, a collection that includes, among many other things, a Mississippi Arts Festival award whining photograph of a white couple. Most Mississippians take their backgrounds for granted, but Bill Ferris does not.

He sees a fascinating world at his back door, and he wants to get it down on film, tape and print before it dissolves into something indistinguishable from the rest of a homogenized populace.

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