Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. By William Ferris. University of North Carolina Press, 312 pages (plus accompanying CD and DVD), $35.00.

The year was 1968, and William Ferris was standing on the front porch of a house in Leland, Mississippi, knocking on the door. It opened after a minute and a woman peered out at him. He said, “I’m looking for James Thomas.”

“There’s no James Thomas here,” she said. Several children peeked at him from behind her. After a pause, she said, “Why are you looking for him?”

“I’m writing a book on the blues,” Ferris said, “and I’d like to have him in there.”

“Well,” she said. “He’s gone out. He’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

When Ferris had first started poking around Leland for good musicians, folks in town had pointed him straight to Thomas’s house in a neighborhood called Black Dog. So he went back in a few hours. And he went many times after that. The kids would run to the door when he turned up and grab his hands, telling him jokes and stories for his tape recorder as they pulled him through the house to their father. James “Son Ford” Thomas was the nephew of a one-armed grave digger, and he’d taken over the job after his uncle died. He told Ferris stories about that, about his life and his family. And then he’d pull out his guitar and sing the blues.

Ferris is a folklorist, and he has been ever since he started recording stories and songs by black Mississippians when he was a high school kid in the 1950s. He grew up on his family’s farm outside of Vicksburg, and their nearest white neighbors were three miles up the road. His parents taught him and his siblings to always respect others, regardless of race, he says. He was about nine years old when he saw a black child riding a mule on the side of the road, and white children shouting at him from their school bus. It’s haunted him ever since.

Have guitar, will travel

Ferris made a lot of friends in the 1960s and 70s while hauling a tape recorder, a Super 8 camera, lights, and his Gibson guitar to homes, churches, and juke joints around Mississippi. He and the folks he met played music and told stories and generally had a good old time.

The blues had been around in Mississippi for decades by then, but plenty of people — particularly white Southerners — wrinkled their noses at it. “This was not what they wanted to be known for in the South,” Ferris says. And there was certainly nobody who studied it. In black communities, though, there was no way around it. People played guitars, pianos, fifes, drums, harmonicas, fiddles, bottles, and even something called a one-strand-on-the-wall — a rudimentary, one-stringed instrument made by stapling a piece of wire to a wall and pulling it tight, with a rock or brick wedged under the wire to raise it off the wall. A man Ferris met named Cleveland “Broom Man” Jones perfected a deep, rhythmic backup to other instruments by spreading sand on the floor and rubbing a broom handle across it. People sang the blues at home to pass the time, Ferris says, or to chase away loneliness or despair or poverty or anger.

And in every region across the state there were “blues families,” regular people who lived for Friday and Saturday nights when they could all squeeze into a club or the back room of someone’s home to play the blues, or just listen and dance. “We didn’t have but one night to have a good time,” Thomas said. “We’d stay up all Saturday night and try to get some rest on Sunday. All in the late hours of the night, you could hear those guitars.”

And Ferris partied with them. “Corn liquor and catfish and chitlins,” he says. “It was called the gut-bucket blues circuit.”

Then on Sundays there was church. “Blues and sacred music are joined at the hip,” Ferris says. One blues musician told him that switching from church music to the blues was easy: just swap out “my God” with “my baby.” The rest of the song can stay the same.

A Nova full of mikes and tapes

By the time Ferris got to grad school, he had a trunk full of tapes, and he kept adding to it during his summers back home. He traveled around the state in an old Chevy Nova full of microphones, cables, extension cords, blank tapes, and films. He’d work that way for a week or two at a time before the heat and the intensity of the job got to him. It was draining work, he says; there were always good jokes and music, but he heard plenty of stories that were brutal and sickening. So he’d head out to the family farm for a few days to transcribe interviews, develop photos in his homemade darkroom, and organize his work. He’s written plenty of academic books on the music and culture he studied all those years.

But Ferris’s new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues, is different, and it delivers exactly what its title promises: the words and voices he collected of Mississippians who had it rough and, in telling about it, changed American music forever. The book itself is made up of transcripts from Ferris’s recordings along with the portraits he took. They range from everyday black farmers, churchgoers, and the down-and-out, to blues masters such as B.B. King and Willie Dixon. And the accompanying CD and DVD put you there.

On the discs are original recordings made in people’s sitting rooms and on front porches and inside clubs and churches. There are radio segments and some songs that have never been released anywhere else because they were made up on the spot. Some of the most spellbinding tracks on the CD, though, are from what was then called Parchman Farm (now it’s known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary).

Parchman was an eighteen-thousand-acre working farm in the heart of the Delta, full of mules, guards, and inmates. People said you could hear the black inmates singing from a mile and a half away while they plowed and chopped wood. “Both times I went to Parchman, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Ferris says. “I just showed up with my equipment and said I wanted to make some films of work chants. I think the people who ran it thought I was some sort of an official person, maybe from Jackson, who’d been sent up. But they allowed me to just walk in and film in the most intimate ways.”

Ferris set up his equipment in the field one evening and recorded the blues in Parchman in their most true, raw shape. One man stood away from the dozen or so other prisoners and started up a song about a beautiful woman named Rosie, who, the tales said, waited outside the gates for her man to be freed.

Oh Rosie…
Oh Lord, gal…
I would cut your kindling…
I would do your cooking if I just knowed how…

The other men raised their axes and called his verses back to him before thunking the blades down into the same long tree trunk on the ground in front of them. In the distance, a trustee stood and watched them. (Until the 1970s, Parchman officials gave longtime inmates loaded rifles and ordered them to guard the others.) It was hot, Ferris says — the middle of the summer. It was almost sunset though, and you can hear the crickets droning away in the background.

Afterward, one of the inmates, a man named Ben Gooch, told Ferris, “Now those work songs, that just something just come to you out there on the job when you’re working. At the time when I come here, you couldn’t talk on the job. You just had to sing.” Another inmate, James “Blood” Shelby, said, “When you’re working and you singing, it makes you get your mind off everything else and get it on your work.”

“That was a very disturbing place,” Ferris says. “It was all about survival for the inmates. And how do you survive a place in which your life is worth nothing? You have no recourse if someone chooses to whip you or kill you.” (Later, when civil rights activists uncovered the murders, rapes, and beatings within the prison, a federal judge decided that Parchman was an affront to “modern standards of decency,” especially for the black inmates, and ordered reforms.)

A “past strange” white man

Plenty of folks said it was “past strange” that a white man would want to go into juke joints and spend time with black people, Ferris says. “My mother was very worried about me,” Ferris says, “and with good reason.” A highway patrolman once searched his car and demanded to know just what he was doing hanging around in a black church. And late one night a mysterious car chased him and blues singer Mississippi Fred MacDowell for miles down a gravel road. (Eventually they lost the other car, and neither of them mentioned it again.)

“But I’ve always had a problem with authority,” Ferris says soberly. “I thought that if it’s considered inappropriate for a white Mississippian to study black culture and to embrace it in this way, then that’s exactly what I should be doing.”

Many of the black people Ferris met asked him, “Why would you want to do this? These are just old songs and stories. This stuff’s been around for a long time. It doesn’t have much value, especially for people like you.”

“But it was exciting work for me,” Ferris says. “I mean, I could tell this was strong medicine. It just felt to me like I was connecting with worlds that would really never be remembered if someone didn’t go in with a tape recorder and a camera and capture the beauty of what people were doing and saying.”

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William Ferris is Joel Williamson Eminent Professor of History in the College of Arts and Sciences and senior associate director of Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South. Give My Poor Heart Ease is due out in November 2009. His work was funded by in part by the H. Eugene and Lillian Youngs Lehman Fund of the University of North Carolina Press.