William “Bill” Ferris returned to Mississippi in 2014 to accept the state historical society’s B.L.C. Wailes Award. Established to honor Mississippians who achieve national distinction in the field of history, the prize previously had been bestowed upon Civil War chronicler Shelby Foote, Lincoln biographer David Donald and Monticello curator Dan Jordan.
Receiving accolades was hardly new for Ferris, a pioneer in the academic study of folklore and the American South. The 74-year-old Vicksburg native was selected by the University of Mississippi to midwife its Center for the Study of Southern Culture; tapped by Quincy Jones to help compose a musical score for the film production of “The Color Purple;” and chosen by President Bill Clinton to helm the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1986, the French government knighted Ferris.
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’ career largely has consisted of recognizing, preserving, cherishing and publicizing the value in the South’s everyday artifacts — from blues songs and folk stories to quilts.
But the life’s labor of William Reynolds Ferris Jr. began at the farm on the banks of the Big Black River.
Ferris’ newest book, The South in Color: A Visual Journey, partly documents life on his family farm, where he says the people and the land shaped him and inspired his work as a folklorist. The book, published by UNC Press, is available at bookstores nationwide.
“My work springs from intensely personal roots on the farm where I grew up in an isolated community with families — black and white — whom I knew well,” he said. “My interest in folklore was my way to honor and preserve those worlds, and by extension, other worlds that I felt were connected to them. I see the people with whom I work as an extended family of black and white relatives.”
The property entered the Ferris family through Ferris’ grandfather Eugene, an agronomist who bought a portion of it in 1919 with hopes to “improve” what he described in an unpublished memoir as “a largely worn-out old farm.”
Of Eugene Ferris’ three sons, two became doctors. The other, William, also had designs on the medical profession before suffering a back injury that required a year of recuperation which was made possible with the help of Houston personal injury attorney. His father’s memoir suggests that the accident might have saved the farm: “Confined to his bed when not actually in hospitals undergoing two serious operations,”
Eugene Ferris wrote, William Ferris “began to give attention, from his bed, to the operation of the farm while I continued to work for a salary away from home.”
William Ferris Sr. would live there for the rest of his life, taking title to the approximately 2,800 acres from his parents in 1943. Bill Jr. was born the year before, and four more children — Shelby, Hester, Grey and Martha — followed.
“Daddy decided that he loved the farm,” Ferris Jr. said. “He was good at it — which was a blessing for all of us, because we got to grow up here.”
Growing up on the Ferris farm in the 1940s and 1950s entailed isolation. In the absence of uniformly paved roads, the 16 miles between the property and Vicksburg amounted to a formidable barrier.
But Ferris said the setting was idyllic for a budding folklorist.
“The stories and people who shaped me on the farm gave me a deep sense of the power of stories and place,” Ferris said. “My father taught me that you can always learn a lesson from each person you meet in life. That lesson inspires me each day in my work to record stories from many different people.”
The South in Color is the first of Ferris’ books to include his color photographs, a part of his work he felt should be seen.
“While my black and white photography has been widely published, these color photographs offer a very different feeling for the worlds in which I worked as a folklorist,” he said. “The South in Color allows photographs to have center stage. They present a visual narrative in which color images lead the reader through the book, rather than a text-based narrative.”
The visual journey unconsciously became the last in a trilogy, following Give My Poor Heart Ease (published in 2009), which represents Ferris’ earliest interviews with blues artists and The Storied South (2013), which features notables such as Eudora Welty, Alice Walker and Pete Seeger, who inspired him to study the American South.
“The South in Color offers deeply emotional encounters with the people with whom I worked as a folklorist,” Ferris said. “Together they offer three very different parts of my life and with Southern worlds that shaped me.”
The photographs — 100 selected from the 6,00o initial color images that were digitized from his collection — not only give a glimpse of Ferris’ life on the farm. They also document his journey as a folklorist, with photographs spanning the 1950s to the 1970s, showing, Ferris said, various “Mississippi worlds where few photographers used color film.”
“They offer an intimate look at people and their worlds that will be familiar to those who lived there,” Ferris said. “They also capture a world that has largely disappeared or changed beyond recognition. …We find ourselves connected to their worlds in ways that are familiar and satisfying. We feel a deep connection to the past that helps us deal with the future.
“My interest in documenting people began at the age of 12 — in 1954 — when my parents gave me a Brownie camera for Christmas. As soon as I opened the box and took out the camera, I put a roll of film in the camera and photographed my family having Christmas dinner,” he said. “From that moment on, I continued to make photographs. I now have over 100,000 images in my archive.”
Ferris received his Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969, taught at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) for two years and taught at Yale for seven more before returning to his home state in 1979 to help found the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss.
His time as director of the center was marked by the 1989 publication of the eight-pound Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which Ferris co-edited with Charles Reagan Wilson. And it was while Ferris was at Ole Miss that many Mississippians first met him in the guise of “Dr. Blues,” the host of the Saturday-night Highway 61 blues program on public radio.
Ferris’ work at Ole Miss led to his appointment as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1997, which led to his current position as Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
His newest book provides an honest and open perspective on his journey from the farm to a lifelong career as a folklorist.
“I feel that it is important to present the worlds in which I work as openly and clearly as possible,” he said. “The camera never lies. It reveals truths that even the photographer may not see. And when images are sequenced and grouped, as they are in my book, they create a visual narrative that links my personal life with each of the people with whom I worked over the years.”
Ferris dedicated The South in Color to his mother, Shelby Flowers Ferris, who died two years ago at her home on the cherished family farm. Ferris said his mother and her compassion for people was an inspiration to him throughout his career.
“Mother cared deeply about other people. She followed generations of friends in the community — black and white — from birth to death,” Ferris said. “Her notes and gifts on birthdays, graduations, weddings reflected her awareness of their lives and her interest in them. Those qualities were an inspiration to me as I tried to reach out to others through my work as a folklorist.
“She was a wonderful writer, as well as a gifted photographer, and I knew she would love this book,” he said. “When she was dying at the age of 94, I told her that I would dedicate my next book to her. She smiled and understood that she would be remembered through the book.”
Ferris will return to Mississippi to sign The South in Color: A Visual Journey in his hometown of Vicksburg for a 2 p.m. signing Dec. 22 at Lorelei Books.