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Reviewed by:
  • The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists by William Ferris
  • Alex T. Primm
The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. By William Ferris. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 288 pp. Hardbound, $35.00; E-book, $39.99.

If you need to head south to relax on a beach or into the mountains for summer breezes, William Ferris’s The Storied South would be a great book to bring with you. While the text mainly presents interviews with artists and academics, it should inspire any reader’s appreciation of the South’s diverse environments, [End Page 382] intellectual and otherwise. Most readers in this journal probably know that the author is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a former chair of the embattled National Endowment for the Humanities. It might be possible to consider The Storied South as a capstone of this historian’s career, with the whole package providing portraits of a vibrant Southern culture, thereby serving as more than a mere summation of Ferris’s life work.

For this beautifully produced volume, Ferris mainly wears his oral historian’s cap. His text and portrait photographs of two dozen Southerners are meant to show the importance of storytelling in the region. With generous introductory notes, each individual is presented with selections from interview transcripts recorded at some point during the last forty years. Complementary to this and, in my opinion best of all, are a CD and DVD in the back of the book that contain short clips from interviews, allowing many of these individuals to be seen and heard; I find this material not only handy but, in some ways, as solid as text printed on paper, even if, apparently, many presses regard such digital content as old technology. It is somewhat heartening that Ferris selected what he feels are gems of his oral history work to be shared both in written and aural forms. Having said that, though, using a DVD and a CD for the digital material makes this volume more of a coffee-table production than a textbook; placing this material on the Internet may have made these interviews more accessible for classroom and other interactive uses.

The Storied South is broken into sections—“Writers,” “Scholars,” “Musicians,” “Photographers,” and “Painters”—with up to nine persons in each. What makes Ferris’s selections poignant are the many personal asides that show the culture and nature of Southern life and Ferris’s work as a young researcher exploring the region of his birth. One of the longer sections on the DVD (seventeen minutes long) is with the musician Pete Seeger, who died as this review was written. Many accounts have come across the Internet recently about Seeger as a freethinker and activist, but none mentioned Seeger’s Southern roots; the singer’s father, Charles, said to be a founder of ethnomusicology, is also included here as one of the scholars profiled. Ferris provides us with Pete’s remembrance of one trip with his dad, in which they went to the Bascom Lunsford Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. After hearing the music played there, Pete fell in love with Southern mountain music and tried to learn it. Excerpts such as this one characterize most of the portraits in the book, which tend to be memoir-like, as Ferris has edited his voice from the transcripts. Overall, the individuals profiled in The Storied South are well known in their respective fields; they tend to offer retrospectives on their work, which, in a few cases, become tedious to read (the best interviews seem spontaneous). Unexpected moments and characters make the whole production more personal; the DVD, though, is a bit uneven, but a later clip with bluesman Bobby Rush enlivens the recording. [End Page 383]

After introducing the photographer Walker Evans, who worked with James Agee to produce the classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The American Classic, in Words and Photographs, of Three Tenant Families in the Deep South in 1941 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), Ferris mentions that Evans documented a farm where Ray Lum produced mules for the livestock trade. Ferris wrote a model...