Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. William Ferris. The University of North Carolina Press, November 2009. $35.00.
Review by Katya Cummins
Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues is a book that will transport its readers, though it’s meant to be experienced at a walking pace. The book is comprised of black-and-white photographs and edited interviews that William Ferris compiled in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it comes with a CD and a DVD that don’t merely just make possible, but actually require, appreciative interaction with the people of a “fading generation” along the landscape of Mississippi's Highway 61.
The directness of what Ferris calls “the uninterrupted narrative voice…a folkloric version of the dramatic monologue” allows for a shift away from the technical aspects of blues and facilitates a relationship between readers and members of Mississippi's black community, through the songs that influenced them.
In his introduction, Ferris makes it clear that growing up white in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era made him a foreigner to the world of blues. To cultivate an understanding of the music that surrounded him, he first had to be invited into the community that created it. Ferris describes the warmth with which he was received:
When I knocked at the speakers’ doors, they welcomed me and encouraged me to learn from elders whose voices are the heart of this book. As Reverend Isaac Thomas said to me, "The door here swings on the hinge of good welcome at all times."
This good welcome is extended to the reader, even as Ferris’s voice acts as mediator between the reader and several communities. The book is divided into four sections: “Blues Roots,” “Blues Towns and Cities,” “Looking Back,” and “Sacred and Secular Worlds.” In each section, Ferris introduces a town and its significance to blues, then the people who formed that history in those communities tell their own stories.
The largest section, “Blues Towns and Cities,” is dedicated to Ferris’s close relationship with James “Son Ford” Thomas, whose song “Highway 61” gives the book its title:
I walked Highway 61 till I give down in my knees.
I walked Highway 61 till I give down in my knees.
I ain’t found nobody to
give my poor heart ease.
As a result the book has a sort of zoom effect, from wide-angle to close-up—here’s the history, here’s the town, here’s its people—with Ferris’s voice tying the three together by providing the context of his visits. Though he uses an autobiographical frame, Ferris emphasizes that “the real story lay in ‘freeing’ the voices, and letting them tell their own story.”
Ferris (Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) wants the book to be about blues and its people, about Mississippi, about two past generations. But the book is, in places, deeply personal and autobiographical, giving it the feeling of something like creative nonfiction. I think this is Ferris’s way of paying homage to people he’s known well, but it creates a tension. He doesn’t want his voice or personal story interfering with the voices and history of blues, yet there he occasionally is, especially in the act of discovery:
Blues and sacred music are joined at the hip…one blues musician told me that if a singer wants to cross over from sacred music to the blues, he simply replaces ‘my God’ with ‘my baby’ and continues singing the same song.
Turning the page, we transition from Ferris’s voice to that of Mary Gordon, his once-housekeeper, who speaks about the importance of Rose Hill Church, 15 miles southeast of Vicksburg, where she grew up singing gospels:
When people go away from here and they die, they want their bodies to come back here where their mother, father, and all their relatives are. That’s why they brings them back. Some of them make a request that they want to go back home, you know, when you die. So their families will bring them back and bury them up on Rose Hill.
But sacred music and blues were intrinsically linked there, and Mary Gordon agreed to sing “You Shall be Free,” a parody of the preachers, only after Ferris promised not to let Reverend Isaac Thomas, the last of the Rose Hill preachers, hear it. The reader is invited to slip in the CD and listen to the song before flipping the page and hearing Reverend Thomas’s story.
Rose Hill was one of several communities between Centerville and Memphis, the beginning and end of Highway 61. In another town, Lorman, the reader will pause to listen to a story told by Louis Dolton, who introduced William Ferris to the one-strand guitar, sometimes called the diddley bow, and Ferris points out how its influence marks the evolution of music through generations:
[The one-strand guitar is] related to African...instruments and is an important reminder of how African musical roots survive in the American South…. The instrument influenced the bottleneck guitar style popularized by blues performers Elmore James and "Mississippi" Fred McDowell. Today, bottleneck style is used by musicians like Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Keith Richards.
This is one example of how this book teaches musicology subtly and engagingly, mapping the genealogy of African music to blues, blues to jazz, jazz to folk, and folk to rock n’ roll. In this, it's about how music and stories tie one generation to the next. Its multimedia journey moves us from Louis Dalton’s town of Lorman, to Johnny Lee “Have Mercy” Thomas’s Parchman Penitentiary. We’re invited to listen to the prison-chant “Lazarus,” to linger briefly in Tutwiler for a fiddle tune, and to hear Willie Dixon and B.B King reminisce about how the blues influenced their lives.
Give My Poor Heart Ease is a multi-faceted portrayal of blues history that makes accessible a community and a genre of music with incalculable influence, and it should be a holiday favorite this year.