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American Routes Shortcuts: Bill Ferris

Son Thomas
Bill Ferris

Bill Ferris grew up on a farm near Vicksburg, Mississippi, hearing music from the neighboring black community. In the 1960s and ‘70s, he documented work songs and gospel singing at Parchman Penitentiary, the blues at juke joints and house parties, and folk art and crafts in the Mississippi delta and hill country.  Now professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina, Bill Ferris recently compiled his recordings in the Voices of Mississippi boxed set. Bill tells of capturing the sound of the diddley bow and its role in Delta blues.


Bill Ferris: It’s an iconic African-derived instrument that inspired bottle-neck guitar. If you had an old worn-out broom, you took the wire off the handle and strung it on a wall, and you could play a tune.  This is Louis Dodson, who lived in Lorman, Mississippi, back in the hills off of Highway 61, and from the time he was a child, he played the one-strand, which virtually every blues singer as a child played because it was free. He also blew the bottle, a sound that is very similar to BaBenzélé Pygmy yodels in the Congo, so within his musical repertoire, he had two of the most powerful sounds that linked to Africa, that he was playing right in the heartland of Mississippi.

Nick Spitzer: One of the artists that you’ve worked closely with over the years is James “Son Ford” Thomas, and you’ve got a song leading the collection here, “44 Blues.” Tell us a little about that song, and about Son Ford Thomas.

BF: Well, Son Ford Thomas was one of the first blues musicians I met in the 60s. I was traveling through the Mississippi Delta, and I asked if there were musicians who played the blues, and they said, “Well, if you go over in Black Dog, ask for Son Thomas.” So I went to his house – that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. I discovered that not only was he an amazing blues musician, he was also a great story-teller and a sculptor of clay faces and animals, birds. He also made skulls– he was a gravedigger, that was his work. And he said “When I make a skull and people look at it, they say, ‘Is that what I’m going to look like when I’m down in the dirt?’” And he said, “These skulls make you stop and think about your own life.”

NS: This is also a time when the Civil Rights struggle is coming to the fore. Tell me about that mix of Civil Rights, music and activity. 

BF: Well I was threatened, and I tried to stay out of sight of the white community when I was working with blues musicians because you simply never knew what might come through the door in the middle of the night, and there were the three Civil Rights workers killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi and many other murders. And I saw this work as a political act, that going in with a tape recorder and camera, and trying to capture the people who were struggling for freedom and for survival, I was doing something to record and honor those voices which would otherwise be lost. 

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