Grammy winner and folklorist Bill Ferris, our Tar Heel of the Month, documents lives well-lived

William Ferris has published 10 books over the past five decades, all of them widely acclaimed. But every item on his resume moved down a notch earlier this month, when he won a Grammy Award.

The honor came for his career-spanning 2018 box set, “Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris,” which won for best historical album. “Voices” also won a second Grammy, for David Evans’ liner notes in the accompanying 120-page hardback book.

“I’ve never done anything that’s touched people in such a broad, expansive way,” Ferris says. “Everyone knows about it and I think I’ve heard from everyone I’ve ever met, a flood of emails and notes and phone calls from people I’ve not heard from since I was a child.”

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But there’s no question what the most welcome communication of all was.

“Oh, we got the sweetest gift from Bertie County Peanuts,” Ferris says. “We give them as gifts to friends and family every year and they sent us a big container with a really nice note of congratulations ‘from your friends at Bertie County Peanuts.’ ”

The Grammy stands as well-deserved recognition of one of the most quietly influential careers in the field of folklore. Ferris, who has been at it for more than half a century, doesn’t get out in the field so much anymore now that he’s 76. But he never stops working.

“You can’t be in a meeting with Bill where he doesn’t have his phone out, taking pictures,” says UNC professor Glenn Hinson. “It’s just so much a part of who he is, an ethnographer deep within and he can’t step away from that. But he’s right that these are momentous moments worth documenting, even if they seem mundane in the moment. He’s done it his whole career.”

Mississippi roots

Born and raised in Mississippi, Ferris began taking pictures and making recordings of vernacular artists at an early age — long before entering academia. Even if he hadn’t become one of the world’s leading folklorists at the University of Mississippi, the National Endowment for the Humanities and — since 2002 — at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ferris would have gone right on documenting the music, art and life around him.

The obvious care Ferris puts into his work shows.

“Bill’s archive is a portrait of rural creativity with different and simultaneous dimensions of everyday artistry,” Hinson says. “His commitment from the very beginning, as a local boy born and raised in Mississippi, has been for his best work to emerge out of creating relationships. He was never just a song collector who comes in, gathers and leaves. He went in with a vision of creating friendships, coming to understand the fullness of lives and then working to present those lives.”

Ferris came along at a momentous time. It was the civil rights era and he crossed paths with legends-in-the-making like Mississippi Fred McDowell, B.B. King and Otha Turner. They’re all on the “Voices” box, which includes discs devoted to blues, gospel and storytelling as well as a DVD of some of Ferris’ films.

“Bill has continued to labor in the same garden year after year because he’s so committed and passionate about it,” says Duke University professor Tom Rankin, a longtime colleague. “He has a very good instinct for the emotional power of vernacular art, and also an eternal optimism that a lot of people could learn from. He’s always in search of the artistic goodness and transformational light in the tangle of regional prejudices and exclusions and history that is the American South.”

A legacy, online

Ferris retired from teaching last summer, but you’d never know it because he’s busier than ever with exhibit and book projects. His wife Marcie Cohen Ferris was also a professor until her own retirement, but she’s just as busy herself with book-writing, too.

“Marcie says we’re rewired, not retired,” Ferris quips.

Ferris came to Chapel Hill with an eye toward his eventual legacy, drawn by UNC’s commitment to digitize his massive archive and make it freely available. It was a process that took millions in grant money and years of work by staff and student volunteers dubbed the “Ferris Wheels.”

“It’s very much an archive unto itself, just so large,” says Steve Weiss, curator of UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. “As good as the box set is, it just gives the tip of the iceberg of Bill’s tens of thousands of recordings, photos, films and research papers.”

Ferris calls having his work online “like a new birth for me,” noting that he’s happy to have lived long enough to see it. He has also been at it long enough that his former students are now running departments and doing their own work at universities and institutions all over the world. Plenty of work remains to be done, still.

“It’s sad to see how relevant the work I did in the ’60s still is today,” he says. “Blacks in the Mississippi Delta would tell me about how it was open season all year long and you could kill a black man with impunity. That’s still with us today, as black men are still murdered with impunity. During the struggle for civil rights, many of us thought we were leaving racism behind. But we haven’t.”

Ferris was especially dismayed by the controversy over the Silent Sam statue on the UNC campus, which protestors toppled last year. In his mind, it should have been relocated to a museum long ago.

“Race was America’s central issue at the beginning of the 20th century, and it’s still true today,” Ferris says. “We simply can’t move beyond it, it’s the Achilles heel of the nation. But it’s an issue that can be solved. A nation as wealthy and great as ours, when we want to solve something, we do it. We put a person on the moon.

“But with social issues,” he concludes, “we’ve still got a long way to go.”

David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.