William R. Ferris, a widely recognized leader in Southern studies, African American music and folklore, is the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the senior associate director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. He is also an adjunct professor in the curriculum on folklore.
The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ferris has conducted thousands of interviews with musicians ranging from the famous (B.B. King) to the unrecognized (Parchman Penitentiary inmates working in the fields).
He has written or edited 10 books and created 15 documentary films. His more recent books include “The Storied South: Voices of the Writers and Artists” (2013), and “Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues” (2009). He co-edited the massive “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” (UNC Press, 1989), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His other books include: “Mule Trader: Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules and Men” (1992), “Local Color” (1982, 1992), “Images of the South: Visits with Eudora Welty and Walker Evans” (1978), “Mississippi Black Folklore: A Research Bibliography and Discography” (1971), “Blues from the Delta” (1970, 1978, 1988).
Bill Ferris’ films include “Mississippi Blues” (1983), which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. He has produced numerous sound recordings and hosted “Highway 61,” a weekly blues program on Mississippi Public Radio for nearly a decade. He also has published his own poetry and short stories.
A native of Vicksburg, Miss., Ferris was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
Industry Expertise (2)
Areas of Expertise (8)
Joel R. Williamson Distinguished Professorship (professional)
The Joel R. Williamson Distinguished Professorship was established by John A. and Paula R. Powell of Palo Alto, California. John Powell is a 1977 UNC alumnus. The Williamson professorship was the largest single endowed chair established by an individual in the College of Arts and Sciences during the university’s Carolina First fundraising campaign. Bill Ferris is the inaugural holder of the professorship.
Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities (professional)
Awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to recognize persons for outstanding contributions to the public's understanding of the humanities.
Dartmouth Medal (professional)
Awarded by the American Library Association, this medal honors the creation of a reference work of outstanding quality and significance.
Lifetime Achievement Award (professional)
Awarded by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
University of Pennsylvania: Ph.D., Folklore 1969
University of Pennsylvania: M.A., Folklore 1967
Northwestern University: M.A., English 1965
Davidson College: B.A., English 1964
- American Folklore Society
Media Appearances (5)
Meet Bill Ferris, Preserving The Voices Of The South
State of Things, WUNC radio
When Bill Ferris meets someone, he usually asks, “Where are you from?”
The simple question prompts an important answer for the folklorist. For Ferris, a sense of place is integral to one's identity, and there is hardly a more influential and complex place in shaping identities than the American South.
'Cotton and the Blues': UNC Helps Preserve Iconic All-Black Towns
WUNC 91.5 online
Bill Ferris is Associate Director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. “These five historic black towns are iconic. They are to the black community what Israel is to the Jewish people, what Ireland is to the Irish," said Ferris. "They are the homeland of black experience.” But all of these towns are struggling, a problem they share with many rural communities...
For six decades, folklorist Bill Ferris has broken some of the country's biggest racial barriers. Now, he's sharing the South's story with the world
Indy Week online
"Nowhere in the world has the South not been heard—Elvis, Faulkner, Gone with the Wind," he says of the broad appeal of both the class and his region. "There is an increasingly open door to the South both ways, people looking for something to identify with and understand. The voices I've recorded stand tall."...
Free online course features stories, music, art of the American South
College of Arts and Sciences online
A new, free, six-week online course that explores the stories, music and art of the American South will be offered Oct. 13 to Nov. 28.
The massive online open course, or MOOC, has been developed and is being taught by UNC’s William Ferris, Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South.
Contested Memories Find Common Ground In 'The Storied South'
For four decades, William Ferris tracked down some of the most inspirational artists and historians of the American South. He sat down with Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Pete Seeger, Bobby Rush and Alex Haley, capturing their reflections on tape and their images on camera...
The Moon Pie is an icon in the American South, where both its image and its taste evoke memories of country stores and their agrarian worlds. If we Google Moon Pies, 3,060,000 references appear on subjects that range from art and literature to festivals, recipes, and astrology. In his entry on “Moon Pies” in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Tom Rankin explains that the Chattanooga Bakery in Chattanooga marketed the product as “the original marshmallow sandwich.” The delicacy consists of “one quarter inch of marshmallow sandwiched between two cookies about four inches in diameter.” The sandwich is then “coated with chocolate, banana, coconut, and vanilla frosting.”
On December 27, 1980, I traveled with blues singer James "Son Ford" Thomas to Houston, Texas, where we appeared together at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association on an oral and written literature panel that was organized by Michel Fabre. I spoke about the blues, and Thomas sang the blues for a large, appreciative audience. During the program I noticed a member of the audience in the front row who was thoroughly enjoying the music. It was Allen Ginsberg, with my old friend Gordon Ball (who took photographs of the Beat Generation for more than two decades and has written important books on Ginsberg). At the end of our program, Gordon Ball introduced Thomas and me to Ginsberg, who invited us to his room in the hotel to play more blues. We accepted, and I taped and photographed Thomas and Ginsberg as they spoke and sang together.
William Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Walker Evans have defined southern photography just as profoundly as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward shaped southern literature and history. Both groups are bound by their deep love for the American South and by their admiration for one another’s work—an admiration that I share. Walker Evans first introduced me to Bill Christenberry’s work in 1973, shortly after he and Bill had traveled together to Hale County, Alabama. I met Bill not long after that trip, and we have been close friends ever since.
To explore the relationship between Ireland and southern culture is for many southerners an intensely personal journey. My own family has Irish ancestry on both sides. Because of those ties, I have always felt an affinity for Irish history and culture. When I first read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the late fifties as a student at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, Joyce and his protagonist Stephen Daedalus spoke to me in a deeply personal way. I embraced the book as a manifesto for my own rebellion from the web of politics, religion, and family that defined my life in the American South.
For over a century the blues has served as the musical anchor of American music. Muddy Waters aptly titled one of his songs “The Blues Had a Baby, and They Named it Rock and Roll.” Without the blues, we could not imagine gospel, rock’n’ roll, rock, and rap music. Blues also shaped writers like Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker, artists like Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglas, composers like Nathaniel Dett and William Grant Still, and choreographers like Alvin Ailey and Cholly Atkins. The blues, in fact, have given us a way of understanding life through its distinctive prism.
Alex Haley’s legacy is forever tied to his legendary works—The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots: The Saga of an American Family, two of the most influential books on the black experience in the twentieth century. When his Autobiography of Malcolm X appeared in 1964, it transformed America’s understanding of black life and culture. The book moved readers, just as Richard Wright’s Native Son did when it was first published in 1940. Twenty-four years apart, Haley and Wright each parted the veil of race in America and exposed, with unvarnished clarity, angry black rage. Haley’s work on Malcolm X quickly became essential reading in the 1960s for students in the Civil Rights Movement.
How can we wrap our arms around Alan Lomax? He was a force of nature who appeared superhuman. I thought of Alan as a Minotaur—half man, half supernatural—who defied life as we know it. His very walk seemed to defy gravity as he slid gracefully with his distinctive gait. Sally Yerkovich recalls seeing Alan one day at the National Endowment for the Arts as he and his sister Bess walked side by down the hall, each holding reading glasses in their extended right hand. They moved with that familiar Lomax stride that covered great distances and led them both to people and places that we celebrate today.
Pete Seeger has long been my hero. As an undergraduate at Davidson College in the early sixties, I listened to his records and learned to sing folksongs from his published works. When we organized civil rights meetings and marches at Davidson, his music and his unwavering commitment to human rights were always an inspiration. "We Shall Overcome" was our anthem, and we sang it often at civil rights gatherings in the early sixties.
A transcript of a roundtable session held at the 2006 Biennial Scholars' Conference on American Jewish History in Charleston, South Carolina, June 5, 2006
Few books have touched me so deeply as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). I first read it as an undergraduate student at Davidson College in the early sixties and was struck by both James Agee's prose and Walker Evans's photographs. Encountering their portrait of white sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama, was an epiphany. They captured stark poverty through Agee's eloquent prose and Evans's striking photography in a work that was both shocking and beautiful.
My friendship with Alice Walker began in the fall of 1970 when I taught in the English department of Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. At that time Alice lived in Jackson and had just finished her manuscript of The Third Life of Grange Copeland. She shared with me encouraging comments that Ernest Gaines had written about the manuscript. During that time Alice also published her impressive volume of poetry Revolutionary Petunias and did an important interview with Eudora Welty that was published in the Harvard Advocate.
William R. Ferris interviewed Eudora Welty at her home in Jackson, Mississippi, on March 3, 1996.
Whether it affects social control, entertainment, or education, oral lore is by definition transmitted through conversation, and a study of Nigerian folklore implies a study of the techniques of all forms of conversation in that society.
A discussion of prose narrative based on the narrative session in the Mississippi Delta as it operates among different age groups, including children, adolescents, adults, and old people.
An important aspect of the blues performance which has received little scholarly attention is the racial repertoire. These repertoires function where certain blues are considered inappropriate for white audiences because they contain obscenity and racial protest.