- Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues by William Ferris
William Ferris's latest book is a beautiful combination of multimedia that is comprised not simply of three hundred plus pages of text, but also of companion audio and video discs (CD and DVD). For the novice blues or black folk art fan looking for an overview of the history of black cultural forms or an explanation of the main features of these arts, this may not be the place to begin. Give My Poor Heart Ease is neither primarily a history nor an analysis of blues culture. Instead it is an ethnography that presents the primary sources of a vanishing culture. As such, Ferris has provided a tremendously important resource for future researchers. Numerous popular and academic books provide broad overviews of blues histories, not to mention works that cover particular periods, autobiographies, or biographies of artists. Likewise, the analysis of the form has been covered [End Page 237] repeatedly since at least as early as Paul Oliver's work, and, of course, there is Ferris's own Blues from the Delta, published in 1978 (Anchor Press/Doubleday).
Give My Poor Heart Ease doesn't present one main story line. Consequently, readers can dive into it anywhere from start to finish as the work contains many narratives. Blues aficionados and scholars will appreciate Ferris's geographical arrangement, and they'll recognize the familiar movement from rural roots through small towns to urban offshoots in the first two major sections. The third section, "Looking Back," contains interviews with two giants of electrified, late twentieth-century blues music, Willie Dixon and B.B. King. The final section contrasts sacred and secular cultures with transcriptions of a rural church service and a small-town house party. Ferris's helpful introduction, head notes, and epilogue provide the circumstances for each interview, facts about the subjects, and analysis of the cultural material.
The readability of some of the longer interviews is hampered by the omission of the interviewer's questions. These can be inferred from context, but their absence can make the primary voice seem meandering, especially when the interviewee is clearly responding to a question that takes him or her in a new direction. Perhaps Ferris simply doesn't have records of the questions, and this problem doesn't detract from the importance of these voices. If only there were more film and audio recordings of them. When speaking at the Corinne Sternheimer Greenfield Lecture at Arkansas State University in 2011, Ferris indicated that his chief regret with his fieldwork in this time period is having been too stingy with the tape and film. The technical limitations and expense of the media and technology available to him in the late 1960s and 1970s made it impossible to record everything he now wishes he had preserved.
These two caveats are mere quibbles in the face of the overall power of this work. Ferris gives us a remarkable record of African American cultural expression. As well as multiple forms of storytelling and song, the book presents several different thematic tensions, including sacred vs. secular, black vs. white, male vs. female, and rural vs. urban. Much attention, for example, is paid to the blues and gospel music divide by the speakers in the book, and that the two worlds shouldn't mix is expressed repeatedly by both blues player and churchgoer, but perhaps most succinctly by Rev. Isaac Thomas: "The church people should draw themselves out from the world and be separated from the world of people" (p. 28). Yet that this line is only fuzzily drawn and breakable is well known to the Reverend: "The same gang that go to the juke house is going to the church" (p. 28).
Many other memorable characters abound here: James "Son Ford" Thomas, bluesman and sculptor, and his friend Shelby "Poppa Jazz" Brown, a juke joint owner; logger and one-strand guitar player Louis Dotson; barber Wade...