Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Give My Poor Heart Ease (copy)

I got the blues this week. Down in my back, I have found no relief.” These are lyrics for my new song “Low-Down Back Blues.” Yes, I am having a little back trouble this week and it is fitting that I talk about Give My Poor Heart Ease by William Ferris.

From the first lines to the last, this book is excellent! Why, you may ask? Well, I don’t want to gush, but it has every element known to the blues genre within 302 written pages including an hour long DVD of original content, an hour’s worth of original music on CD, original photographs, and illustrations. It is a truly complete package.

Ferris begins with a nine page introduction that should be the basis of his autobiography. He grew up in the country outside of Vicksburg in the 40s and 50s. From an early age, he was fascinated by the music he heard played or sung by his neighbors. This developed into a passion for all things Southern especially blues music. He was not alone either. His older brother Grey shared the excitement.

While attending college, Grey talked his brother into interviewing with film and recorder the locals as they sang or preached. This is the beginning of his DVD. Filmed all in 1968, the home movies are gritty black and white productions full of unscripted moments such as the Reverend Isaac Thomas who sings his sermon instead of orating at the Rose Hill Church, a baptism in the Mississippi where the flock enters the water in pairs, and prisoners singing work chants while chopping wood at Parchman Penitentiary. Listeners will recognize the familiar sing-song of railroad workers in the Coen Brothers’ movie, O Brother, Where Art Though?


These amateur beginnings served Ferris well as he became a folklorist and set out to record and interview all the blues artists in Mississippi. In 1970 he came to the hill country of Tate County to interview an opinionated man named Otha Turner. Otha opened his home to Ferris and taught him how to make his own fife.

He made Napoleon Strickland’s first cane, too. Otha said, “He took it up hisself after he heard me blow a piece. And now Napoleon can really blow a cane.” On page 73 is a picture of Otha holding his legacy, Sharde Turner, a current student and recipient of the Edna Teasler Scholarship at Northwest. One can hear Napoleon performing “Somebody Knocking on My Door” on the CD, too.

These are merely examples of one man’s passionate opus to the blues.

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