Blog Post

Digital Archives Symposium: Keynote William Ferris: Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues.

Technology is exciting for folklorists, and by way of introduction, Ferris (Associate Director, Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina) cites two important quotes:

Black people are a people of the word rather than the book (Ralph Ellison). 

When an old man or woman dies, a library burns to the ground (African Proverb). 

Our earliest literary texts--Beowulf, the Pentateuch, The Illiad, The Odyssey--these are all oral traditions.  When we talk about digitizing books, we can return books to their original oral form.  Epic storytellers, Ferris says, are the first libraries; our oldest books are the oral books. 

A sense of place, he adds, is important for these stories.  Technologies can bore deeply into a sense of place, a history of place.  We can find the stories that make our communities unique.  In addition, it is not just a literal place, but imaginary mythic places that shape us in such powerful ways.  Technology is a tool to access the human heart, rooted in places and stories. 

Technology, Ferris continues, can also allow us to access information about who we are.  Ferris says that Harvard's magnificent library will eventually be accessible to children in the ghetto of LA, to people on Native American reservations  The truth will make you free.  Access to information is a form of empowerment, and it transforms our understanding of ourselves and others. 

Give my poor heart ease, the title for his recently revised 40-year-old dissertation project, is taken from blues song lyrics.  In the online version, you can click to hear the stories and see the images that are more powerfully affecting than I can describe here.  [] 

Preservation and access, Ferris says, are the keywords and goals for digital archiving.  The safest way to communicate information is to carve it into stoneit is the most permanent form of communication.  A folklorist would argue that storytelling endures in powerful ways as well.  However, digital archives risk constant loss through obsolete technology.  How can we preserve these goals of preservation and access?


Ferris describes his research trip, begun as a child, never knowing exactly where he was going, but collecting ancestral memories beginning along Highway 61.  The sense of place and the changing of the seasons were important for the communities he visited.  The living libraries, the storytellers, were visible and valued.  Ferris quickly saw that there was a pressing need to record and document these worlds. 

Ferris began by recording the hymns, spirituals, and sermons in a church that he found, where there were no hymnals to guide the congregation.  The service was run completely by memory, by the members whose families had attended for generations.  From there, he began recording blues singers, from rural Southern communities to a Mississippi penitentiary.  I would talk to them about the worlds they knew. 

I continued into the hills, he said, recording cane fief and drum music.  White southern planters outlawed drums in many communities, but small patches of this music continued.  Since conducting this research over forty years ago, Ferris has followed the families he visited.  He reported that the granddaughter of one musician, a fief and drum player, is continuing in her grandfather's footsteps to preserve this music, the circle unbroken.  Another musician's children live in Chicago now, he says, describing them as old friends rather than research subjects.

This was the 60s, he said, and he saw KKK initials everywhere.  I felt safer in the black communities, he said.  He worked at the WROX radio station, which played blues and gospel music, and lived in a black neighborhood.  The photographs Ferris shared were eloquent.  Ferris describes his experience as more of a personal narrative than academic study, and his argument is more story than assertion: In this world, I began to see the blues as a family, an extended family all ages would come in, and be bound by the music.  The stories were there, constantly being shared. 

Ferris describes bringing BB King to the Yale campus, to talk with students and faculty.  He spoke and performed in the performing arts center to standing ovations, and was given an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Yale.  Ferris played recordings of interviews with King, who told stories of his childhood interspersed with licks of music.  King told Ferris that he finds family when he performs.  King's work, Ferris says, is the culmination of the one-string, fief and drum musicians he had originally followed, and it shows the trajectory of change in these communities.

The blues have given solace to people for generations, Ferris says.  The power of place is clearly where we begin, and the power of stories within those places.  How we share that with technology is really a dream come true.




Q: We have lots of optimistic stories about using technology what are the limits?  What are the costs?  How does technology alienate the speakers and listeners of these stories?  Does technology really transcend the social boundaries and limits?

A: Ferris answers this question by quoting Yeats: If you dream the dream long enough you create the reality.  There has always been inequity, and Ferris admits that the more things change, the more things stay the same.  But, he says that we're making incremental steps.  When he was conducting this research, during the Civil Rights movement, it was dangerous for him to be in these communities, doing this kind of workthat has changed.  There was poverty, some of which hasn't changed.  But there is some hope.  By capturing these stories, sharing them and putting them back in the community and those worlds are honored in this way and held up with respect, you send a message.  Technology is a tool, Ferris reminds us, and it can be a tool of change: it's not going to make everything right, but it's our best hope. 


Q: How do you find this information, and put it in a digital format?

A: Ferris smiles, I'm a big believer of librarians!  The numerous librarians at the conferenceasked by Ferris to standwere greeted with applause. 


Q: Do you want to clean up the recordings, or is there a historical aspect that you're wanting to preserve?  Have you thought about making new recordings and taking new photographs, to track change over time?

A: None of the voices, aside from BB King, are still alive; Ferris goes back to talk with the children and grandchildren, but a busy professorial life doesn't allow much follow up any more.  In terms of cleaning up, Ferris insists that he is meticulous.  His goal is to tell the best story, not to give the most authentic accountyou want to shock people and push them.  Ferris believes that editing can help the material to tell a more powerful story than it would on its own. 


Q: Given that technology is changing quite rapidly, how might technology help foreigners to understand a unique, place-bound musical style like the blues?

A: International people appreciate this music often more than we do, Ferris says; the earliest books published on the blues were done in England and Japan.  We should think of visual and audio literacy as a porous relationship, he explains.  The syncopation and other stylistic qualities of blues music are reflected in literature and art of this culture; blues show up in photography, novels, jazz, and art, connected by a politics of liberation.  You can understand the meaning of blues music, Ferris says, even if you can't understand the words.


Q: What about Nature Deficit Disorder?  How do technologies also prevent us from engaging in place?  Doesn't technology also alienate us from the places we inhabit? 

A: Virtual reality is an interesting phrase I love art, I love the suspension of disbelief, Ferris replies.  He thinks that we tend to overreact about any technology; we feared that the cinema would replace the radio and TV would replace film, but none of these things has happened.  There is new attention to growing your own food, buying local products, he says; there are still interests in connecting to place.


No comments