And the Grammys go to . . . retired Carolina professor Bill Ferris.
A box set of music, stories, film and photographs described as the distillation of the folklore professor’s lifetime of work won two Grammy awards, one for Best Historical Album and another for Best Album Notes.
University Libraries archivists can also take a bow for their part in the creation of “Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris” released by Atlanta-based record label Dust-to-Digital in August 2018. The collection was chosen from a massive archive created by Ferris that is part of the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library.
“This box set winning a Grammy says it all,” said Ferris, who was in Los Angeles for the Feb. 10 ceremony. “These voices are now assured that they will never be forgotten and they will never be invisible. They will always be part of our collective memory as Southerners and as Americans and as human beings because the interest in this box set is global.”
The multimedia collection includes three discs — blues, gospel and storytelling — and a DVD containing seven of Ferris’ films from the 1970s. It also features a 120-page book with photos taken by Ferris of his friends — musicians, artists and storytellers — lyrics, transcriptions of field recordings, essays and artist profiles.
Produced over the course of 10 years, the set would not exist without the expertise of University archivists, who began work on Ferris’ collection in 2003.
Ferris, considered the founder of the Southern folklore discipline, joined Carolina’s faculty in 2002 and retired in spring 2018 as the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South. He is adjunct professor emeritus in the folklore curriculum.
Author of 10 books and co-editor of the “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” Ferris has written fiction, poetry and articles on folklore and literature, as well as book, record and film reviews. Ferris has also recorded blues albums, produced 15 documentary films on Southern folklore and hosted a public radio show on the blues. He has received numerous awards, including the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities, bestowed by former President Bill Clinton.
Five tons of materials
Steven Weiss, curator of the Southern Folklife Collection, directs work on the Ferris Collection, including bringing five tons of photographs, slides, papers, audio recordings, videotapes and films to Carolina. He supervised the archival processing (with former library colleague Roslyn Holdzkom) and wrote and managed grants that funded the work to preserve the materials digitally and provide online access.
“It’s a beautiful distillation of Bill’s work that can be enjoyed by a larger audience because the collection is such an enormous and overwhelming body of work that I imagine you could easily do another box set or two without too much trouble,” Weiss said. The set is a must-have for most libraries, Weiss said, because of its scholarly importance and influence.
Weiss obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize the audio, making it accessible online for researchers and easier to find materials in the immense collection. Other grants enabled the team of eight archivists and graduate students to digitize the rest of the collection, work that was underway when Dust-to-Digital approached Weiss about creating box set.
“They were able to access the collection and use our digitization work really quickly,” Weiss said.
The team supporting the collection includes Aaron Smithers, Southern Folklife Collection assistant; photo archivist Patrick Cullom, who developed descriptions of photographs, negatives and slides; Laura Hart, technical services archivist; John Loy, preservation audio engineer; audio engineer Brian Paulson, who digitized many of the audio recordings; Erica Titkemeyer, Mellon Project director and AV conservator; Anne Wells, audiovisual archivist; and graduate students.
The archivists used their in-depth knowledge of preservation of photography, recorded sound, video and documentary film; knowledge of archival arrangement and description; and subject knowledge to preserve Ferris’ collection and ensure it is available to scholars and the general public for generations to come.
“They are the finest librarians in the world,” Ferris said, adding that he continues to donate materials for the archive, including personal files, manuscripts, photographs and recordings from classes and events.
Total immersion in Southern voices
Ferris describes the resulting box set as a total immersion in what he calls “the authentic sound of Southern voices — black and white, men and women, old and young and the actual sound of those voices.”
Transcriptions enable listeners to read the songs and stories in a literary form.
“That’s especially important,” Ferris said, “because our writers in the South are inspired by such voices. [William] Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty — all draw heavily on the oral tradition, which this box set is all about.”
Many of those voices come from Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Ferris was born in 1942. He grew up on his family’s farm, playing and working with members of five black families who also lived there. At 12, he began taking photographs of his family and friends with a Brownie camera, a Christmas gift from his parents.
“When I see a person or I listen to the voice, I see them and I’m right back with them,” Ferris said. “In some cases, there were stories in the box that I had forgotten. Victor ‘Hickory Stick’ Bobb tells about repairing the airplane engine of Charles Lindbergh when he broke down in Vicksburg in an amazing story with fascinating detail.”
Ferris said that he hopes people will “go progressively deeper into the box set and they will keep coming back to it because it’s a work of art in itself.” To listen and learn, go to the Dust-to-Digital website.
The cover photo of blues musician, storyteller and sculptor James “Son Ford” Thomas is appropriate because of his prominent role in Ferris’ work and life. “He did all of the things that I was trying to capture as a folklorist, and he was probably my oldest and best friend with whom I worked until he died,” Ferris said. They traveled together, and Thomas spoke to Ferris’ students at Yale and the University of Mississippi.
‘My right arm’
As the box set came together, Aaron Smithers, the collection assistant whom Ferris calls “my right arm,” knew exactly where to find materials that Dust-to-Digital requested. “Nothing could have happened without Aaron’s deep knowledge of my archive,” Ferris said.
Smithers said that the team’s work makes items easier to find and use. He said that the first time Dust-to-Digital’s team visited Carolina, they gave him a hard drive on which he placed 400 gigabytes of audio.
“And that’s not all of it,” Smithers said. “Just to sort through some of those recordings and pull the content — to do that open-reel or from the source material — would have been insane.”
Despite the level of remove that his works brings, Smithers delights in finding new material, such as a slide of Cleveland “Broom Man” Jones, Joe Cooper and Thomas, decked out in 1970s ties and colorful slacks, musical instrument cases by their side, as they pose near the reflecting pool on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“It’s always enjoyable to see what other people see in the work, especially when it’s done in consultation with the creator,” said Smithers. “Bill can do that. Enjoy it but be critical as well and encourage students to think about his work and theirs critically.”
With such a vast collection documenting his career, Ferris said that the work by staff at Carolina’s libraries not only made the materials accessible and easily found, but also led him to see his work anew.
“In a way, it’s the first time I’ve looked at the body of my work as a whole rather than piecemeal, and so it’s been moving and exciting for me to see that. When I read Scott Barretta’s opening essay that does the same thing, I thought about all the different pieces of my life somehow put together in a single thread,”