Saving The Sacred Blues Of Highway 61 Driving his Chevrolet Nova up and down Highway 61 in Mississippi, William Ferris stopped at churches and juke joints and penitentiaries to record the music he found. In his new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease, Ferris explores the legacy of the "The Blues Highway."
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Saving The Sacred Blues Of Highway 61

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Saving The Sacred Blues Of Highway 61

Saving The Sacred Blues Of Highway 61

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Unidentified Man: This time, it's the 61 Highway that runs by my door.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I walk 61 Highway �til I give down in my knees.

RAZ: Back in the 1960s and early '70s, William Ferris drove up and down Highway 61 in Mississippi, searching for the blues. Armed with a pen and pad, a small movie camera, and a tape recorder, Ferris set out to capture the sounds of homemade blues, music played in churches and living rooms and juke joints, music that would never appear on a record.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) �give my poor heart ease.

RAZ: William Ferris has finally unearthed those hundreds of hours of recordings, interviews, songs, stories, after nearly 40 years, and he's written a book about it. It's a series of profiles called "Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues."

Bill Ferris is with us from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Welcome to the program.

Professor WILLIAM FERRIS (Author, "Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues�): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

RAZ: How was this stretch of highway - because Highway 61 actually goes from Louisiana all the way up to Minnesota. But this part of it along the Mississippi, in the State of Mississippi, this is really the heartland. This is really where the blues begins. Why did it happen there?

Prof. FERRIS: Well, B.B. King once told me that explaining how the blues happened there is like explaining how life was first created on the floor of the ocean. It's a large African American population from slavery to the present. And within those communities, the blues thrived and continues to thrive today and evolving into music like hip-hop and gospel and rap.

This is the home of John Lee Hooker, of B.B. King, Reverend C. L. Franklin - Aretha Franklin's father. The music that has flowed up Highway 61 is truly historic.

RAZ: The book includes a CD and a DVD of audio and video recordings you took at the time. And I want to play one of the earliest recordings you made.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEE KIZART (Musician/Singer): (Singing) I got the water watering jug, baby, and the stopper all in my hand. I feel mistreated. Little darling, don't tell where I go.

RAZ: That's Lee Kizart, an unknown blues singer, somebody you just recorded in Tutwiler, Mississippi. He was already 65 years old, Bill Ferris, when you met and recorded him. Tell me about Lee Kizart.

Prof. FERRIS: Well, he's one of many of the musicians in this book that I simply met, stumbled across and was told about. And we walked over to a high school auditorium and found a piano, and he sat down and played what we just heard.

RAZ: He didn't earn a living playing music.

Prof. FERRIS: No. like most of these musicians, they had other jobs that put bread on the table. But he had played earlier in his career. He had a band and they played around the Delta, as he said, when the Delta was in her bloom, when Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were traveling through.

But he later learned to repair and tune pianos and he worked with the piano in that way, as well as singing and playing occasionally, when people like me were wandering through.

RAZ: How did you get into blues music and what was it about it that spoke to you?

Prof. FERRIS: Well, I grew up on a farm outside of Vicksburg. And as a very young child, a lady who's featured in this book, Mary Gordon, took me to a black church on this farm, Rose Hill, on every first Sunday.

And so, I grew up listening to these hymns. And as I grew older, I realized that if I did not record these hymns and photograph the families there, one day, they would be lost. And that was sort of the beginning of a long journey of recording, not just that church service, but blues singers and storytellers; blues is closely related to the spirituals that I heard, the same musical sound.

One musician told me that when you, quote, "Crossover,� you simply change my Jesus and put my baby in and the music stays the same.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You recorded a group called the Southland Hummingbirds in a place called Lula, Mississippi, in 1968. And the track that you include on the CD in this book is called "There are Days."

(Soundbite of song, "There are Days")

SOUTHLAND HUMMINGBIRDS: (Singing) Lord, there are days. There are days. I like to be. I like to be. I like to be, oh, (unintelligible). Do you believe? There are days. I like to be sometimes. I like to be. I like to be, oh, (unintelligible).

RAZ: Tell me about this group, the Southland Hummingbirds. What was it like to hear them? And where did you record them?

Prof. FERRIS: I recorded them in a little four-room house with a single light bulb hanging from the middle of the room. And they gathered in front of a single microphone and began to sing. And the feet were moving to the beat, the call and response of the lead singer and the response of the other singers, a cappella. That was the deepest and clearest kind of gospel sound that I encountered, and it was especially moving.

RAZ: Bill Ferris, how did you find the people you recorded? I mean, you were a young, white man, a graduate student at the time in the �60s and the �70s, early �70s, driving in areas where I suspect many of the folks were suspicious of your motives or of what you were after.

Prof. FERRIS: Yeah, the '60s was in many ways a dangerous time, if you were white, to be traveling in black communities and recording. And I was...

RAZ: I mean, if you were White and it was assumed you were a civil rights worker.

Prof. FERRIS: Yeah, it was just the unknown. I stayed in the black community and tried to stay out of sight of the authorities. And if I were stopped, I explained I was doing a book on the blues, and usually, that was enough to be able to go on my way. But it was not a normal thing to do.

Today, there are busloads of white tourists who come to the Delta to hear the blues. In the �60s, there was no one and it was a lonely journey.

RAZ: You also went to some of the penitentiaries in Mississippi, along Highway 61, including a Parchman Penitentiary. You recorded the inmates at a place known as Camp B in 1960, and I want to hear that recording.

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Well, the High Sheriff, ah-huh, told the deputy, ah-huh, want you to go out and bring me (unintelligible). Oh, bring him dead or alive. Lord, Lord, bring him dead or alive.

RAZ: Tell me what we're hearing here. This is a work chant.

Prof. FERRIS: Yes, they're basically chopping with hoes. And you have a leader who leads the chant and then the gang who works in unison who echo each line. Again, this is a music that has roots in Africa, and it was a basic music that would have been familiar in slavery and well into the 20th century as a way of coordinating hard labor and pacing it so that people could get through the day and survive.

RAZ: When you were doing this, Bill Ferris, blues music wasn't yet mainstream. It wasn't recognized for its importance, and obviously, that changed. And one can just go to Beal Street in Memphis today to see all those wonderful clubs. But today, some people worry that it's kind of fallen out or falling out of the mainstream again, and sort of become the province of folklorist and historians like you. Does that worry you?

Prof. FERRIS: It does not. I think every generation fears this is the last time the blues and the ballad and whatever the form is will be heard. But life goes on. It will change, but it will not end.

Willie Nelson once told B.B. when I was sitting with them, said, B, I've stolen some of my best licks from you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FERRIS: And B.B. said, well, I'm proud to know that. So the blues goes on and it certainly will change and be different. A hundred years from now, we can only imagine what the blues will sound like, but it certainly will be alive and well.

RAZ: William Ferris is a folklorist and the author of "Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues." He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bill Ferris, thank you so much.

Prof. FERRIS: It was my pleasure.

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Well, she's a no good, don't it? And she don't mean no one man no good.

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