Yesterday, I was thankful to have wound up staying late at work (sometime past 8 p.m.) because that meant I had the chance to drive home and listen to “the Story” on NPR. That night’s particular episode captured music in its most raw, most organic form.
Host Dick Gordon interviewed Bill Ferris author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. Ferris’ multi-media book (it comes with a DVD and CD) documents the blues at its most primordial, and some of the clips of music blew my mind while others brought shivers to my skin and lodged my heart deep in my throat (If you download the mp3 of the show, just listen to the bit at 8:56 that kicks off this aural journey). This is not the commercialized and contrived blues rock harvested by studios to sell records. These are people yearning to express themselves, their souls laid bare, people who need music to express themselves in the transcendent manner that spoken language cannot provide substitute.
Ferris began this documentation for his own personal interest in the sounds of the music he found growing up in Vicksburg Mississippi, in the early 60s and into the mid 70s. He started with a camera at the age of 12 (see the about the author section). As a young boy, he attended sermons at Rose Hill Church in the company of a black woman and recorded the hymns and sermons. In the little clips on the show (beginning at 14:00 on the radio show) that exposed Ferris to the world within these churches, he captures moments of such immense power that they not only fascinated him but frightened him. It was a true encounter with the sublime for the young Ferris, who went on to become senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Many of the people he recorded lived in small wooden shacks. Their instruments were handmade,” noted Gordon during the program. Ferris finds musicians so desperate to express themselves they fashion instruments out of broom wire, a nail hammered into the wall of their shack and a rock. The publisher, the University of North Carolina Press, has a website dedicated to the work. This page shows how this makeshift guitar works.
The power of this music comes from a place so beyond commercialism and even self-promotion, that it becomes a gorgeous, pure thing to hear. It’s far beyond the hippie-chic compilation CDs meant to sell everything from silly ideas of world peace to packaged, ground coffee. This is the sound that embodies the true spirit of music as an elusive and fleeting expression of life experiences. “The recordings are magical because there is a kind of warmth and spontaneity and honesty to them that I think is truly the value of what we have here,” said Ferris during the radio program.