William R. Ferris is a widely-recognized expert and scholar of “southern studies, African American music and folklore,” according to the department of history’s website at UNC-Chapel Hill. His diverse range of work includes books, papers, interviews, audio recordings, radio, photography, poetry and short stories. He has conducted thousands of interviews to learn about the rich, everyday life of southern people. His subjects range from mule traders, gospel church worshipers and farm hands to the famous, including blues singers B. B. King and James "Son Ford" Thomas. In a 2015 Indy Week interview, Ferris described himself: “a documentarian of the South is who I am to the core."

William R. Ferris

Personal Details

Ferris was born February 5, 1942. He grew up on a farm in Warren County, Miss., 15 miles southeast of the Civil War siege at Vicksburg, Miss., with his four siblings: Shelby, Hester, Martha and Grey (who died in 2008).  According to UNC Wilson Library’s Southern Folklife Collection, Ferris is married to Marcie Cohen Ferris and has a daughter named Virginia.  In an interview with Blues.Gr, Ferris credits his father for giving him the best advice he’s ever had: “You can learn a lesson from every person you meet in life.”

Ferris currently works at UNC-Chapel hill as the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History; Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South and Adjunct Professor in the Curriculum in Folklore. He can be contacted at:

Love House and Hutchins Forum
410 East Franklin Street, CB# 9127
Chapel HIll, NC 27599
[email protected]


Ferris was taught in public school in Vicksburg, Miss. until high school, where he attended Brooks School in North Andover, Mass. According to his curriculum vitae, his formal education includes: a bachelor’s in English literature at Davidson College (1964), a master’s in English literature at Northwestern University (1965) and a master’s and doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania (1967-1969). He also attended Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland for one year (1965-1966).


<div> Ferris is the author of 11 books; his most recent, “The South in Color,” was published in August, 2016. Other books include: "The Storied South, Voices of Writers and Artists, “Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues,” “You Live and Learn. Then You Die and Forget It All”, “Ray Lum's Tales of Horses, Mules and Men” and the “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” which he co-edited and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

According to the William R. Ferris Collection at Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his myriad works include “fiction, poetry, and numerous articles on folklore and literature, as well as book, record and film reviews.” Additionally, “Ferris has also recorded blues albums [and] produced 15 documentary films on southern folklore.” One of these documentaries was titled “Mississippi Blues,” which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. He also hosted “Highway 61,” a weekly Mississippi Public Radio blues show.  Approximately 173,000 of his items are in the William R. Ferris Collection at Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but not all are available to the public. Its digital collection is also available.


Ferris’s teaching experience stretches from 1970 to today, according to his curriculum vitae. It includes: assistant professor in the department of English at Jackson State University; associate professor in the Afro-American and American Studies Programs at Yale University; founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and professor of anthropology at the University of Mississippi and chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, appointed by President Clinton.  


Ferris’s curriculum vitae outlines his myriad awards and far-reaching recognition. Some include the Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities, bestowed by President Clinton and an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Rhodes College. He’s also “served as a consultant to The Color Purple, Crossroads, and Heart of Dixie.” He received a Guggenheim Fellowship award in 2007-2008.



 1. Papers, 1942-2004.

1.1. Professional Papers, 1970-2004.

1.1.1. Jackson State University, 1970-1972.

1.1.2. Yale University, 1972-1979.

1.1.3. Center for Southern Folklore, 1974-1983.

1.1.4. University of Mississippi/Center for the Study of Southern Culture, 1977-1998.

1.1.5. National Endowment for the Humanities, 1997-2001.

1.1.6. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,         2001-2002.

1.1.7. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2001-2004.

William R. Ferris’s Facebook Page


Indy Week, March, 2015