107 - William Ferris—Keeper of Southern Folklife

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Folklorist and Professor Bill Ferris, a Grammy nominee this year for his "Voices of Mississippi" 3 CD Box set, has committed his life to documenting and expanding the study of the American South. His recordings, photos and films of preachers, quilt makers, blues musicians and more are now online as part of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina.

Bill Ferris grew up on a farm in Warren County, Mississippi along the Black River. His family, the only white family on the farm, worked side by side with the African Americans in the fields. When he was five, a woman named Mary Gordon would take him every first Sunday to Rose Hill Church, the small African American church on the farm. When Bill was a teenager he got a reel-to-reel tape recorder and started recording the hymns and services.

“ I realized that the beautiful hymns were sung from memory—there were no hymnals in the church—and that when those families were no longer there, the hymns would simply disappear.”

These recordings led Bill to a lifetime of documenting the world around him—preachers, workers, storytellers, men in prison, quilt makers, the blues musicians living near his home (including the soon-to-be well known Mississippi Fred McDowell).

Bill became a prolific author, folklorist, filmmaker, professor, and served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is a professor of history at UNC–Chapel Hill and an adjunct professor in the Curriculum in
Folklore. He served as the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of
Mississippi, where he was a faculty member for 18 years. He is associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South.

Bill’s has written and edited 10 books and created 15 documentary films, most dealing with African-American music and other folklore representing the Mississippi Delta. His thousands of photographs, films, audio interviews, and recordings of musicians are now online in the William R. Ferris Collection, part of the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina.

This story was produced by Barrett Golding with The Kitchen Sisters for The Keepers series.

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