by William Ferris, University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 320 pp., $35 The blues, when authentic and real, is celebrated by some, lived by others. Those who know it well — not those who observe it, museum-like, from afar — are easy to spot.
So what better way to tell the stories of blues musicians than by letting them do the telling?
Some will say that folklorist William Ferris' new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues, is more transcription than well-written literature. Boo, I say.
Ferris, a native Mississippian, has given historians and music fans a gift. For two decades, Ferris documented the men and women who played the blues in pinprick towns on the Mississippi delta map. It's an odd, though wonderful, mixture: A white Mississippian, professor-like, gaining unique access and understanding of the often-misunderstood culture of black Deltans.
In towns like Gravel Springs and Lorman, Centreville and Rose Hill — yes, Clarksdale and Memphis, too — Ferris spent time with bluesmen who, except in the rarest of cases, weren't household names in the grandest sense.
What he recorded and photographed was neither music theory nor boilerplate history. It was a genre's soul. A people's, too.
"The blues is nothing but the devil," guitarist James "Son Ford" Thomas, of Leland, Miss., told Ferris. "You couldn't go to church and sing a blues song. You wouldn't do that."
Be forewarned. Give My Poor Heart Ease is not a book for the faint-hearted reader. It's not G-rated. Ferris offered no filter to his bluesmen, so their stories, told in their voices as if they were sitting alongside your chair, are sometimes filled with stories of sex, booze and despair. Cursing's allowed.
Ferris wants you to know that bluesmen often lived the blues, raw and shocking, of which they sang. Mission accomplished.
If you're not careful, Ferris' work will remind well-read readers of Southern history of author Theodore Rosengarten's All God's Dangers, which used the first-person voice of sharecropper Nate Shaw to take readers inside the lives of poor, black Alabamians a century ago.
In some ways, Nate Shaw and the black Mississippi bluesmen Ferris introduces us to are one in the same, their voices and their lives wonderful studies in the reality of the Deep South's past.
"Everybody have the blues. You don't have to be black to get the blues. We all get the blues sometime or another, you know," said bluesman Robert Shaw. "Blues goes back to feelings, how you feel today. You can wake up in the morning, and something is blue around your bed. You understand."
I'll admit this: It's easy to be enamored by the book's companion CD and DVD; it is the 21st century.
But leave those for another day. Grab a cup of coffee, settle on the couch and enter the lives of talented musicians we all should meet.
They'll teach you much about the blues, about the South, and about life. It's a gift, indeed.
Phillip Tutor is The Star's commentary editor.