Vicksburg native Bill Ferris wins two Grammy Awards

Published 3:37 pm Monday, February 11, 2019

Vicksburg native William Ferris took home two Grammy Awards Sunday night for a project he has spent most of his adult life working on.

Ferris was nominated for “Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris,” a four-disc box set compiled from his archives. He won in the Best Historical Album category, as well as Best Album Notes  — David Evans’ liner notes in the hardback book that accompanies the package.

Ferris, a retired University of North Carolina professor, spent more than six decades capturing, documenting and assembling southern folklore and music that resulted in “Voices of Mississippi,” which took 10 years to complete.

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Lance and April Ledbetter at Dust-to-Digital, his publisher, had several teams over the years who worked to pull together the pieces that ended up in the boxed set.

“It was a long, tough journey. The fact that it’s been nominated for two Grammys reflects the quality of their work in selecting the material for final production.”

“As a folklorist, you become a conduit, taking the voice you hear and sharing it through books, recordings and films, photography,” Ferris said in December after being nominated for the Grammy Awards.

Born in Vicksburg in 1942, Ferris grew up in the Jefferson Davis community south of town. As a teen, he began documenting the artwork, music and lives of people on his family’s farm and in the local community.

“All those early photographs were developed by Connie Woods, in a little pharmacy catty corner from the old YMCA. I have the first negative I ever took. I kept everything.”

Ferris’s work is archived and digitized in the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina and has served for half a century as a powerful teaching tool in institutions of higher learning where he taught, including UNC as well as Jackson State University, Yale University and the University of Mississippi, where Ferris became the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in 1978.

Ferris points out that folklore is as old as the human experience.

“When we study folklore, we study the roots of something that is thousands of years old. When we record those voices and share them, we really are tapping into a powerful vessel of history that people all over the world are hungry for. People today are hungry for voices that are authentic and beat from the heart.”

The recordings in Voices of Mississippi speak in that way.

“And many of them are Vicksburg voices. Mule trader Ray Lum, Victor ‘Hickory Stick’ Bobb, Reverend Isaac Thomas, the amazing preacher at Rose Hill Church.” Ferris added that Vicksburg native Willie Dixon “was the greatest composer of blues and the greatest blues bass player in history. They represent a part of American culture that has been neglected yet is treasured and needs to be reproduced.”

He said the Grammy is important because it brings these voices to a wider audience.

“It’s the pinnacle of recognition for the field of music. And it’s especially important (that) musicians from Mississippi, who represent the roots of American music, are being recognized by the Grammy awards. It helps us understand that the roots of blues and rock ‘n’ roll and gospel and country music are all in Mississippi,” Ferris told Mississippi Today.