/Bill Ferris makes a ‘Visual Journey’ back to the family farm

Bill Ferris makes a ‘Visual Journey’ back to the family farm

This is the weekly ‘Sip of Culture story, a partnership between Mississippi Today Magazine and The Sip Magazine. Ben Bryant wrote a portion of this article and it ran in The ‘Sip’s spring 2015 issue. Visit The Sip’s website to see more stories like these and to subscribe to the ‘Sip. William “Bill” Ferris was back in Mississippi in 2014 to accept B.L.C. from the state historical society. Wailes Award. The prize was established to recognize Mississippians who have achieved national distinction in the field history. It previously went to Shelby Foote, Lincoln biographer David Donald, and Monticello curator Dan Jordan. Ferris was an academic pioneer in the study of folklore and American South. He is no stranger to receiving accolades. The University of Mississippi selected the Vicksburg native to be its midwife. Quincy Jones was tapped to compose the music score for “The Color Purple” and President Bill Clinton chose him to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ferris was knighted by the French government in 1986. But if those distinctions validated the significance of Ferris’ work, none evoked its origin as poetically as an honor whose namesake — planter/geologist/historian Benjamin Leonard Covington Wailes — once owned the south Warren County property where Ferris would, more than a century later, grow up, milk cows, listen to stories and meet his muse. Ferris’ entire career has been about recognizing, preserving and cherishing the South’s everyday artifacts, from blues songs to folk stories to quilts. The farm on the banks the Big Black River was where William Reynolds Ferris Jr. started his life. Ferris’ latest book, The South in Color, a Visual Journey, partially documents his life on the family farm. He says that the land and people shaped him, and influenced his work as folklorist. The book is published by UNC Press and can be found in bookstores across the country. He said that his work is rooted in deep personal roots from the farm where he grew up. It was a small community of black and white families who he knew well. “My interest was in folklore because it allowed me to preserve and honor those worlds and, by extension, other worlds I felt were connected to them. I consider the people I work with as extended families of black and white relatives.” Eugene Ferris, Eugene’s grandfather, purchased a part of the property in 1919 to “improve” the “old farm.” Two of Eugene Ferris’ three sons became doctors. William Ferris, the other son, had also hoped to be a doctor before sustaining a back injury which required a year of rehabilitation. According to Eugene Ferris, his father’s memoir, the accident may have saved the farm. “Constrained to his bed when he wasn’t actually in hospitals undergoing 2 serious operations,” Eugene Ferris wrote that William Ferris Sr. “began giving attention, from his own bed to the operation and management of the farm while he continued to work for a wage away from home.” In 1943, William Ferris Sr. took title to the 2,800 acres. The year before Bill Jr. was born, and there were four more children, Shelby, Hester and Grey, who followed. Ferris Jr. stated that his father decided that he loved the farm. Ferris Jr. said that he was skilled at the job, which was a blessing to all of us because we were able to grow up here in the 1940s and 50s. It was also difficult to live alone. The 16 miles that separated the property from Vicksburg were difficult to cross because there was no road network. Ferris stated that the location was ideal for budding folklorists. Ferris stated that the stories and people who shaped him on the farm gave him a deep understanding of the power and place of stories. My father taught me that every person in life can teach you a lesson. This lesson motivates me every day in my work to capture stories from many people.” South in Color is Ferris’ first book to feature his color photos, which he felt was a significant part of his work that should be seen. He said that while my black-and-white photography has been widely published these color photos offer a different feeling for the worlds where I worked as a folklorist. The South in Color gives photographs a central stage. They present a visual narrative where color images guide the reader through the book rather than a text-based one.” The visual journey was unconsciously the third in a trilogy that Ferris published after Give My Poor Heart Ease, published in 2009, which contains Ferris’ first interviews with blues artists, and The Storied South (2013) which includes notables like Alice Walker, Eudora Welty and Pete Seeger who inspired Ferris to study the American South. Ferris stated that “The South in Color” offers deep emotional encounters with folklorists. Together they offer three very different aspects of my life as well as the Southern worlds which shaped me.” Ferris’ farm life is captured in 100 photographs that Ferris scanned from his 6,00o color images. Ferris also documents his journey as a folklorist with photos that span the 1950s through the 1970s. Ferris stated that the photographs offer a glimpse into Ferris’ life and world. They also capture a world that has been largely lost or altered beyond recognition. We feel a deep connection to their worlds, in a familiar and satisfying way. It is a feeling of deep connection with the past that allows us to deal with the future. My interest in documenting people started at 12 years old, in 1954 when I was given a Brownie camera by my parents for Christmas. He said that as soon as I opened the box, I took out the camera and put a roll film in it. This allowed me to photograph my family’s Christmas dinner. “I continued taking photographs from that point on. My archive now contains over 100,000 images. Ferris earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. He taught at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University), for two years, and then at Yale for seven more. In 1979, he returned to his home state to establish the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss. The 1989 publication of the eight-pound Encyclopedia of Southern Culture was Ferris’s contribution to the center’s direction. He co-edited it with Charles Reagan Wilson. Ferris was at Ole Miss when many Mississippians met him under the name of “Dr. Blues, host of Saturday’s Highway 61 blues show on public radio. Ferris’ work at Ole Miss earned him the position of chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which in 1997 led to his current position at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill as the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Prof of History. His new book is an honest and candid account of his journey from farm life to a career as a folklorist. He said, “I believe it is important that I present the worlds within which I work as clearly and openly as possible.” The camera is not a lie. The camera can reveal truths that even the photographer might not see. When images are arranged and grouped in a book like mine, they create a visual narrative which links my personal life with each person with whom I have worked over the years.” Ferris dedicated The South in Color his mother Shelby Flowers Ferris. She died two years ago at their home on the beloved family farm. Ferris spoke of his mother’s compassion and inspiration throughout his career. “Mother was deeply concerned about the well-being of others.” Ferris stated that she followed the lives of generations of her community friends, black and white, from birth until death. Ferris said that her notes and gifts at weddings, graduations and birthdays showed her concern for their lives and her interest. These qualities inspired me to try to reach out to others with my folklorist work. He said, “She was a great writer and a gifted photographer, so I knew she’d love this book.” “When she died at the age of 95, I told my mother that I would dedicate my next novel to her. Ferris smiled and understood that she would always be remembered by the book. Ferris will sign The South In Color: A Visual Adventure Oct. 6 at Lemuria Books Jackson and Oct. 7, at Square Books Oxford. Ferris will also be signing The South in Color: A Visual Journey Dec. 22 at Lorelei Books, his hometown. To support this important work, you can make a regular donation to Lorelei Books today as part of the Spring Member Drive. Our reporters give a human face to policy’s impact on everyday Mississippians by listening more closely and understanding their communities. To ensure that our work is aligned with the priorities and needs of all Mississippians, we are listening to you. Click the button below to let us know what you think.