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Saving The Sacred Blues Of Highway 61

William Ferris grew up in western Mississippi, just outside Vicksburg. As a young man, he listened to gospel and blues music, sacred and secular songs sung by the black workers on his family's farm. The music spoke to him.

"We danced to it and listened to it on WLAC Radio at night," Ferris told NPR's Guy Raz. "It was my preferred music, along with rock 'n' roll. And they were closely linked."

During college and graduate school, Ferris returned to the South as often as he could. By then, he had become deeply interested in recording and preserving Mississippi blues. Ferris drove his Chevrolet Nova across Mississippi, up and down Highway 61 — a road known as "The Blues Highway." Along the way, he stopped at churches and juke joints and penitentiaries to make field recordings.

"The music that has flowed up Highway 61 is truly historic," Ferris said.

His most recent book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues, is a compilation of short memoirs of the musicians he recorded. It's been a long time coming, but Ferris promised many of them that their stories would be published.

During Ferris' travels in the '60s and '70s, racial tensions were still high in that corner of the country. For a time, he lived a few doors down from the house where civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot dead.

"There was a lot of random violence, and people simply disappeared," Ferris said.

As a white man spending time with black musicians, "I was followed sometimes," he said. "I was pulled over by the highway patrol. You simply didn't know what might be coming, and I was very cautious. I stayed in the black community and tried to stay out of sight of the authorities."

Later in life, Ferris became an academic. He went on to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is now a professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he also runs the Center for the Study of the American South. Studying the blues — and the communities behind the music — is his full-time job.

"Within those communities, the blues thrived and continues to thrive today, evolving into music like hip-hop and gospel and rap," Ferris said. "It's a music cauldron, with all kinds of voices and sounds being created in each generation." He hopes his fieldwork and books will help ensure the legacy of these small towns and churches.

In Give My Poor Heart Ease, Ferris tells the story of each musician in his or her own voice, using material from his old tapes and transcripts. He says the project took him back in time.

"It was a pilgrimage," Ferris said. "I was looking for an America and a Mississippi that I had been denied growing up. ... I felt that this music and these voices were part of my education. They were teaching me and also sharing an incredibly beautiful music, and an incredibly moving and beautiful story that is even more powerful today."

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