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Give My Poor Heart Ease

Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Give My Poor Heart Ease
    Book Description:

    Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, folklorist William Ferris toured his home state of Mississippi, documenting the voices of African Americans as they spoke about and performed the diverse musical traditions that form the authentic roots of the blues. Now,Give My Poor Heart Easeputs front and center a searing selection of the artistically and emotionally rich voices from this invaluable documentary record. Illustrated with Ferris's photographs of the musicians and their communities and including a CD of original music and a DVD of original film, the book features more than twenty interviews relating frank, dramatic, and engaging narratives about black life and blues music in the heart of the American South.Here are the stories of artists who have long memories and speak eloquently about their lives, blues musicians who represent a wide range of musical traditions--from one-strand instruments, bottle-blowing, and banjo to spirituals, hymns, and prison work chants. Celebrities such as B. B. King and Willie Dixon, along with performers known best in their neighborhoods, express the full range of human and artistic experience--joyful and gritty, raw and painful.In an autobiographical introduction, Ferris reflects on how he fell in love with the vibrant musical culture that was all around him but was considered off limits to a white Mississippian during a troubled era. This magnificent volume illuminates blues music, the broader African American experience, and indeed the history and culture of America itself.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0529-6
    Subjects: Music, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. viii-x)
    (pp. xi-xv)
    (pp. 1-10)

    When I, a white Mississippian, worked as a folklorist in my home state in the sixties and seventies, I set out to study African American music, but the people I met opened my eyes to much more than music. Each of the musicians I was privileged to record—through interviews, sound recordings, still photography, and film—revealed the fabric of life in their families and communities in powerful ways. By featuring their voices firsthand in this book, I attempt to give the reader the opportunity to hear, from the inside as much as possible, voices, stories, and music that are...


      (pp. 13-28)

      Mary “Monk” Gordon and Reverend Isaac Thomas were two of the most important leaders in the Rose Hill community, fifteen miles southeast of Vicksburg. Gordon told me that her grandmother was a slave who walked from Natchez to the Rose Hill community. She and many of Gordon’s other ancestors are buried on the hillside around Rose Hill Church.

      Mary Gordon often sang church hymns while working in her garden or doing housework and was deeply attached to the history of Rose Hill Church. As a young woman, she had religious visions that she interpreted as signs that she should join...

      (pp. 29-46)

      Martha and Scott Dunbar lived on the bank of Lake Mary, an oxbow lake twenty miles west of Woodville in Wilkinson County. The lake formed when the Mississippi River changed its course, and the abandoned riverbed became a lake. Lake Mary is famed for its fishing, and Scott Dunbar worked most of his life as a fishing guide and as a musician who performed at parties in the area.

      Dunbar was a songster who composed and sang a wide range of blues. One of his most unusual songs is a cante-fable—a sung story—about a young man who courts...

    • LORMAN
      (pp. 47-56)

      I met Louis and Addie Mae Dotson in the late sixties while doing field recordings near Lorman. The Dotsons lived on a hill at the end of a dirt road a mile to the east of Highway 61. A vegetable garden and peach trees provided much of their food. They bought staples like coffee, sugar, salt, and pepper at the Brassfield country store a mile south of their home. The store was also a place to socialize with neighbors as they sat on benches in the front, watching passing traffic and exchanging news.

      Louis Dotson introduced me to the one-strand...

      (pp. 57-66)

      Fannie Bell Chapman was a charismatic faith healer who composed gospel music that she sang at religious ceremonies she conducted in Centreville. Centreville was also the home of Anne Moody, whose bookComing of Age in Mississippichronicled her struggles during the civil rights movement.

      Chapman was part of a long, important tradition of black women who sang and healed outside the male-dominated church. Denied access to the pulpit, these women became spiritual healers who performed their own religious ceremonies. They took their healing into the streets and back roads of their community and had a significant impact on their...

      (pp. 67-76)

      Otha Turner lived in the Gravel Springs community, in the hill country of northeast Mississippi, the world that William Faulkner chronicled in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Although the Delta has been the primary focus for the study of the blues in Mississippi, there is a growing recognition of black music in this area of the state. Important recordings made by folksong collectors David Evans, Alan Lomax, and George Mitchell document music that has existed in the Gravel Springs community for generations. Recent commercial recordings of R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough on Fat Possum Records have drawn national attention to...

      (pp. 77-88)

      Parchman Penitentiary is an 18,000-acre penal farm located in the heart of the Delta. For many years, Parchman was farmed with mules driven by white and black convicts. Inmates were segregated, and one of the largest black camps was Camp B, which was located near the community of Lambert.

      During the summer of 1968 I visited Camp B and recorded and filmed black inmates chopping wood to the rhythm of work chants, a musical tradition that originated in West Africa. From five to fifteen men lifted their axes in unison and chopped wood to the beat of a work chant...

      (pp. 89-97)

      W. C. Handy first heard the blues in 1903 while waiting for a train in Tutwiler. A traveling musician playing slide guitar near the train tracks sang that he was “goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.” Handy later recalled that it was “the weirdest music I had ever heard.”

      The small town—1,364 people in the 2000 census—has changed little since Handy visited it over a century ago. In 1968 I approached Tutwiler as a sacred place because of its association with Handy and the blues.

      In Tutwiler, I visited with Lee Kizart, a gifted blues pianist and...

      (pp. 98-102)

      Highway 61 and many smaller roads connect Mississippi Delta worlds and carry colorful travelers along their journeys by day and night. While driving through the Delta in 1968, I met C. L. Redwine, a local fruit and vegetable salesman, with one of his clients, Corine Gardner. I was struck by the handpainted signs asking, “Are you prepared to die?,” on Redwine’s truck and stopped to speak with them.

      Redwine and Gardner gave me a glimpse into their worlds. They had known each other for many years, and Gardner told me how grateful she and her family were for the fresh...


    • LELAND
      (pp. 105-142)

      I first encountered the Delta blues in Leland. During the summer of 1968, I met James “Son Ford” Thomas, a gifted musician, storyteller, and sculptor. We became friends, and our lives remained closely tied together for over twenty-six years until his death in 1993. Allen Ginsberg told me that Thomas was my “guru,” a description that clearly fit the relationship I shared with him over the years. Thomas performed regularly in my classes at Jackson State University, Yale University, and the University of Mississippi. We also traveled together to the Smithsonian Festival on the Mall and to the White House,...

      (pp. 143-159)

      If there is a musical navel or crossroads for Mississippi Delta blues, it must be on the streets of Clarksdale, a city that lies in the heart of the region known for the blues. Generations of young black musicians fled surrounding plantations and moved to Clarksdale, where department stores, restaurants, barbershops, and WROX radio station were beacons of hope and excitement.

      Celebrated musicians like Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, Reverend C. L. Franklin (father of Aretha Franklin), and Sam Cooke grew up in and around Clarksdale. Artists like B. B. King regularly visited and performed at clubs in the city, and...

      (pp. 160-169)

      WOKJ radio station has been the voice of the black community in Jackson and surrounding areas since it first went on the air in 1954. In addition to its rich fare of blues and gospel music, the station reports on local events. Its disc jockeys are considered heroes, and their verbal skills are legendary.

      Bruce Payne grew up in Vicksburg and worked at WOKJ for twenty-seven of his fifty years as a radio announcer. Known as the “Dean” of gospel music, Payne produced a variety of programs over the years. He brought the Staple Singers to Jackson for a concert...

      (pp. 170-174)

      It is said that the two capitals of Mississippi are New Orleans and Memphis. When blacks moved north to escape the Delta, Memphis was their first destination. And in Memphis, Beale Street was the celebrated hub of music and nightlife.

      As musicians aspired to successful careers, they bought stylish clothes for their stage performances. Lansky Brothers clothing store at 126 Beale Street provided suits for both B. B. King and Elvis Presley when they launched their careers. During the filming in 1974 forGive My Poor Heart Ease, Robert Shaw, a veteran salesman at Lansky’s, told me how he sold...


      (pp. 177-184)

      I met Willie Dixon in 1976 when I attended his concert at Toad’s Place, a music club at 300 York Street in New Haven, just off the Yale campus. Toad’s Place has hosted blues musicians for over thirty-three years and was a favorite venue for my students.

      Dixon and I both grew up in Vicksburg, and I had long admired his career as a blues composer and performer. The morning after his concert, Dixon came to the apartment where I lived as a resident fellow in Calhoun College at Yale, and we spoke there about his life. It was especially...

    • B. B. KING
      (pp. 185-202)

      B. B. King’s name is synonymous with the blues. At the age of eighty-four in 2009, the blues patriarch follows a rigorous schedule of performances throughout the United States and overseas that would exhaust a much younger artist. King’s performances and recordings have defined the blues for more than six decades as he has reached out to members of each new generation with music they understand and embrace.

      As an artist, B. B. King defies definition. Born Riley B. King on September 16, 1925, on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta near the towns of Itta Bena and Indianola, he...


      (pp. 205-221)

      The religious center of the farm where I grew up was Rose Hill Church, a classic whitewashed building that overlooks rolling fields from the crest of a tall hill. Its steeple rises above the front door, and the church bell stands beside it. The church has witnessed the revivals, weddings, and funerals of generations who passed through its doors.

      During the sixties, the Rose Hill congregation gathered on the first Sunday of every month to hear Reverend Isaac Thomas preach his powerful sermons. The sound of its hymns drifting across graves on the hill always reminded me of the church’s...

      (pp. 222-254)

      For over a century, house parties have nurtured blues musicians and dancers in the Mississippi Delta. Each Friday and Saturday night, an audience gathers to hear a bluesman play his guitar or piano and sing. The guitar player may be accompanied by a harmonica player, a drummer, and a musician who rubs a broom handle across the floor to provide rhythm. As the evening progresses, audience members sing along with their own verses and tell stories as part of the performance.

      Food and drink are essential to the house party. Their sale provides the owner of the house with income...

    (pp. 255-258)

    Looking back on my visits with each of these speakers, their voices remind me of how surely, how ruthlessly race defined each of their lives, as well as my own. Whether in Rose Hill Church, in Parchman Penitentiary, or in Poppa Jazz’s home, race was always on their minds and on mine. It shaped their music, their tales, their very consciousness, and my own.

    From slavery to the present in the United States, race has defined the core of our being as blacks and as whites. These voices part the veil of black worlds and reveal the beauty, the fear,...

    (pp. 259-290)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 291-300)
    (pp. 301-302)