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 home >> event archive >> botkin lecture archive >> william r. ferris flyer

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

February 17, 2010 Event Flyer

Give My Poor Heart Ease

Presented by William R. Ferris

2010 Botkin Lecture Flyer for William R. Ferris

The following questions and answers were excerpted from "A Conversation with William Ferris, Author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2009)." Select this link for the complete text of this interview on the UNC Press site [pdf 2pp 171kb requires free Adobe Reader software].

Q: What time span does the book cover?
The time span in my book is from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s. As my work evolved, I returned each year to visit musicians who were my friends. The films on the DVD with my book capture performances by speakers and singers like Mary Gordon, Reverend Isaac Thomas, James Thomas, and Wade Walton, first on Super 8 black and white film shot in the late 1960s with a wild sound track, and later on 16mm color film shot in the mid 1970s with a synchronized sound track.

Q: How does this book differ from your previous book on the blues, Blues from the Delta?
A: My original idea was to "update" Blues from the Delta by adding more detail about my blues research and the artists with whom I worked. The more I thought about it, the more I felt this would be a stale rehashing of an earlier book. As I looked through my transcriptions of interviews that I had done in the late sixties, I felt that the real book lay in "freeing" the voices of each speaker and letting them tell their own story. In effect, I decided to change the book's perspective from that of a white scholar talking about music to that of black speakers describing their lives and how music shaped their worlds. This approach allowed me to focus on the rich language of each speaker and to capture each persona by using a series of dramatic monologues, a form that I discovered through the fiction of Ernest Gaines, Alice Walker, and Eudora Welty.

Q: Why did you decide to enhance the book with a CD and DVD? Ideally, how would you like your reader to experience this multimedia introduction to the blues?
Thanks to the marvel of technology, folklorists today can have their cake and eat it too. We can merge the printed word with sound recordings and motion pictures in ways that make this book dynamic and exciting. The reader of my book first meets the speakers as he or she reads their narrative and sees their photographs. They then hear each person’s voice as they speak and sing on the CD, and they come face to face with the speakers and singers in films as they perform.

As a folklorist, I used sound recordings, photography, and film to capture the full impact of stories and music. Until now, however, I never had the luxury of merging all of these media into a single package. The CD and DVD deepen the relationship of the reader to the book. Through sound recordings and film, they intensify the relationship of the reader to each speaker and allow the reader to meet the speakers in significantly expanded ways.

Q: Other than in the introduction and framing remarks for each section, you chose not to include your voice in the published text or in the films and sound recordings that accompany the book. Why not?
I feel that this is a book about each of the speakers, and my own voice is important only as it describes how we met and sets the context of our visit. I believe that the uninterrupted narrative voice of each speaker constitutes a folkloric version of the dramatic monologue in literature. Through the narrative voice of a single speaker, poets and writers like Robert Browning, Ernest Gaines, Alice Walker, and Eudora Welty capture intensely powerful moments in their work. I try to achieve a similar effect by framing each section of the book with the voice of the speaker or speakers whom I recorded.

Q: One of your first interview subjects was your family's black housekeeper, Mary Gordon. Shortly before her death, she said, "You know, you are my white child." How did your special bond with Mary Gordon influence your work?
Growing up in a home where I spent many hours each day with Mary Gordon was an important part of my childhood. Her voice, her sense of humor, her stories, and her hymns were familiar, beloved parts of my experience. In many ways, this book is, by extension, a tribute to the history and culture of Mary Gordon. While she was an important part of my family, she also had an experience vastly different than my own. Her ancestors were slaves who worked the land around our home. Her ties to both the Rose Hill community and to Africa shaped me in profoundly important ways.

Q: B.B. King is featured on your book's cover and you have said that he is emblematic of all blues musicians. What will we learn from your book that we might not already know about this man whose name is synonymous with the blues?
B.B. King has a rare gift of humility and human warmth. In this interview he describes his childhood years and explains that his career as a blues singer is his way of reaching out to audiences whom he sees as his extended family. The genuine warmth that King brings to his musical performances allows him to communicate with fans throughout the world. From Indianola to Moscow and beyond, he touches the hearts of his audiences in profound ways. We also learn that King moved from church music to blues when he discovered that blues fans were willing to pay to hear his music. And in his career as a bluesman, King turned to jazz performers like Django Reinhardt, as well as to blues performers like Lonnie Johnson for his inspiration.

Select this link for the complete text of this interview on the UNC Press site [pdf 2pp 171kb].

William R. Ferris is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and an adjunct professor in the Folklore Curriculum. He is associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, and is widely recognized as a leader in Southern studies, African-American music and folklore. He is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Prior to his role at NEH, Ferris 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.

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The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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