STARKVILLE, Miss.— “Anywhere you go in Mississippi, at any moment, people are telling stories. All you have to do is listen,” 2016 Scholar-in-Residence William R. “Bill” Ferris said during his Monday presentation at Mississippi State.
“As you listen, you begin to understand the greatness of a state like Mississippi and a region like the South because stories are the driving force behind who we are,” added the Vicksburg native and nationally recognized leader in Southern studies, African American music and folklore.
“They are our deepest identity, and what you are doing at Mississippi State is deepening that understanding in ways that will enrich our lives and those of future generations.”
Currently serving as senior associate director for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for the Study of the American South, Ferris attributes his love for stories and those who tell them to his late grandfather and agronomist Eugene Ferris.
“In his eighties, Grandad milked two cows, tended a large garden and wrote his memoirs. He also was a great storyteller,” Ferris recalled.
“He would tell my siblings and me wonderful tales, like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and at the end of that long tale, I would say ‘Grandad, tell it again,’ and he would patiently tell it again.”
By emphasizing that “the key to each of our lives is the story,” Eugene Ferris inspired his grandson to pursue a career as a folklorist with a dream of capturing the stories of Mississippi and the South.
Now the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and Curriculum in Folklore adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ferris explained that as a child, he made a concerted effort to “reach beyond my worlds in a white family to understand the black community and see the ways in which Mississippi and its stories had interwoven with our lives.”
Ferris, who has written and edited 10 books and created 15 documentary films, recounted the times when he visited different communities—with tape recorder and camera in tow—to make films of “the world in ways that would change my life forever.”
“I began to look at the everyday life…the roadside worlds that we pass often unnoticed and to look more deeply into those worlds,” he said.
“I began to connect those worlds to storytellers who were weaving great literary work out of those stories.”
Ferris said one of those literary figures was Eudora Welty, who was best known for her short stories and photography.
“Eudora was a friend of my family, and she was a natural storyteller,” Ferris said of the late Jackson native and author of the 1973 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “The Optimist’s Daughter.”
While teaching at Jackson State University in the early 1970s, Ferris said he befriended poet and writer Margaret Walker, who he described as “an eloquent voice for black writers in Mississippi and the nation.”
“Margaret outlived her critics, and her great novel and poetry today is a powerful expression of black hope,” Ferris said.
In addition to literature, Ferris said music—such as that of his “old friend” Bobby Rush is very important in the study of the South.
“Bobby Rush is a powerful voice for the blues, and what upset Bobby most was when his music was not played by a black DJ because it was blues,” Ferris said.
“He said ‘If a black man tells you that, it’s like denying his mother because that’s where we come from—the blues.’”
In the field of photography, Mississippi has produced some of the greatest American photographers today, according to Ferris.
Among those, he said, are Birney Imes of Columbus, as well as native Southerner William Eggleston.
Now currently residing in Memphis, Tennessee, he grew up in Sumner, a small town in Tallahatchie County.
“William Eggleston, who had the first one-man show in color photography at the Museum of Modern Art, is the acknowledged inventor of color photography in terms of how it’s viewed today,” Ferris explained.
“No photographer approaches what Eggleston does,” Ferris added. “He sees his photographs as a kind of narrative story in which you flip through the images as you would read a novel and at the end of many images, you have an impression as though you’ve read a book.”
Storytelling, Ferris said, also is a powerful, driving influence in the works of painter and Webster County native William “Bill” Dunlap, as well as Tupelo native Sam Gilliam, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky.
Ferris said the “power and sense of place and memory” also has shaped and inspired the works of other artists, including, among others, Hattiesburg native Ed McGowin, now residing in SoHo, New York’s premier contemporary-art locale.
“He continues to wrestle with stories from the South that connect him to his childhood,” Ferris said, “and he incorporates and deals with those through his paintings.”
A University of Pennsylvania master’s graduate who also holds a doctoral degree in folklore, Ferris is a former chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities.
He also co-authored the Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” (UNC Press, 1989), a major reference linking popular, folk and academic cultures.
Ferris’ Mississippi State visit was sponsored by the university’s Office of the Provost, College of Arts and Sciences and the departments of anthropology and Middle Eastern cultures, communication, English, history, political science and public administration, and sociology, as well as the African American Studies program and Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures.