Bill Ferris


index by Tom Maxwell (

Bill Ferris is a 73-year-old UNC professor who has spent six decades becoming Southern culture’s chief documentarian. Last year 9,000-plus students from 128 countries spent six weeks enrolled in what UNC-Chapel Hill calls a MOOC, or a Massive Open Online Course. The program explored oral histories and folk traditions, Southern writers and musicians, with sounds as regional and rich as fife-and-drum bands, work chants and the Delta blues. Almost every interview, photograph, recording and film clip—and there were a lot—came from Ferris.

Equally at home on Mississippi state work farms or in college lecture halls, Ferris has broken some of America’s biggest racial divides to collect tales of a sometimes-hidden history.

In the ’60s, for instance, a white farmer introduced him to a black musician employed on his land. Other white men, all armed, surrounded the meeting.

The musician refused to come out, so the farmer threw rocks at his roof until he obeyed. After a brief porch performance, the musician stopped, complaining of a finger cramp. Ferris arranged to meet him again at another black musician’s house. There, he played for hours, drinking whiskey and cursing his white boss. “Any time you want to come down here,” the man told Ferris, “you drive to my damn house. Ain’t a damn soul gonner f*** with you, white or black.”

From then on, and often at the risk of arrest, Ferris would enter a black community without the permission of local whites. He would buy groceries for his hosts, spend Saturday nights at juke joints, and attend church services on Sundays, all the time recording and taking pictures. He’d send his new friends prints of the photographs, along with a careful note of thanks. He knew what to do, even though he wasn’t sure why he did it.

“Like a lot of what I’ve done in my life,” Ferris says, “there was probably a point I realized these things are significant and should be in an archive. Before that, I just felt they were important in a deeper way. It’s part of what I was put on earth to do—to see that these voices are not lost.”

Ferris filled the trunk of his Chevy Nova with gear—a 35mm camera that his brother, Grey, taught him how to use, a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder, 200-watt light bulbs, a Super 8 movie camera scored at a discount by a cousin in the military.He used it all to capture black Mississippi musicians and the sounds they made.

“Nothing changes,” Ferris says. “It’s the old matters of the heart. I find myself falling back on those voices and the people I’ve been privileged to meet along the way: the famous and not-so-famous, the B.B. Kings, the Eudora Weltys, prison inmates, mule traders, auctioneers, quilt makers. They’re all a part of a common picture.”


One Response to “Bill Ferris”

  1. Eugene Knapik Says:

    Fascinating history. Thanks for sharing.

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