From taking photographs while a teenager to serving as head of the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH), Bill Ferris has sought to document the American South through film, books, photographs, oral histories, audio recordings, and lectures.
Born on 5 February 1942, William Reynolds Ferris grew up on his family farm south of Vicksburg, Mississippi. His upbringing and the cultural specificity of the region—in particular, his exposure to rural African American music and artistic traditions—shaped his professional and personal life. Much of Ferris’s work has documented historically overlooked African American communities in Mississippi.
By age twelve Ferris was taking photographs of his family, his neighbors, and natural scenes. He subsequently attended Brooks School in Andover, Massachusetts; Davidson College in North Carolina; Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois; Trinity College–Dublin; and the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a doctorate in folklore in 1969. Throughout these years, he continued to take photographs of the area where his family lived whenever he was home from school. As a young professor Ferris merged his oral history and documentary projects with classroom lectures, teaching at Jackson State College (1970) and Yale University (1972–79).
In 1979 he became the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, the first program devoted to the academic study of the region. Ferris remained at the center until 1997, when Pres. Bill Clinton appointed him to chair the NEH. He returned to academia in 2002 and served as professor of history and associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until his retirement in 2018.
Ferris’s doctoral dissertation became his first publication, Blues from the Delta (1970), a collection of oral histories from Delta bluesmen framed by cultural studies and folkloric approaches. He has written and edited nine additional books on topics as varied as literary Mississippi, folk art practice, and livestock trader Ray Lum. Ferris has also created audio and visual records of his subjects and produced films, photographs, and recordings to accompany his written work. He and Charles Reagan Wilson served as coeditors of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which features the work over more than eight hundred scholars and garnered national media acclaim and a variety of awards, including one from the American Library Association. Ferris has also been honored by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters and has received France’s Order of Arts and Letters and the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities.
As a bookend of sorts with Blues from the Delta, Ferris created a book, DVD, and audio recording collection, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009), based on interviews with Delta blues musicians. Rather than offering academic or narrative commentary, Ferris allows his subjects—some well known, others obscure—to tell their stories. Another multimedia collection, The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists (2013), collects twenty-six interviews Ferris conducted with such notables as Eudora Welty, Pete Seeger, Alice Walker, William Eggleston, Bobby Rush, and C. Vann Woodward. A third work, The South in Color, appeared in 2016. In 2018, an impressive boxed set of his films and field recordings called Voices of Mississippi won two Grammy Awards.
- William Ferris, documentary films at Folkstreams website, www.folkstreams.net
- William Ferris, Images of the South: Visits with Eudora Welty and Walker Evans (1978)
- William Ferris, “You Live and Learn. Then You Die and Forget it All”: Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men (1992)
- Marc Smirnoff, Oxford American website, www.oxfordamerican.org