William Ferris

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Center for the Study of the American South
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
CB # 9127, 410 East Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9127
(919) 962-0519


Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1969
M.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1967
M.A., Northwestern University, 1965
B.A., Davidson College, 1964


William R. Ferris, a widely recognized leader in Southern studies, African American music, and folklore, is the Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the senior associate director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South. He is also adjunct professor in the curriculum on folklore.

The former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ferris has conducted thousands of interviews with musicians ranging from the famous (B.B. King) to the unrecognized (Parchman Penitentiary inmates working in the fields).

He has written or edited 10 books and created 15 documentary films. He co-edited the massive “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” (UNC Press, 1989), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His other books include: “Mule Trader: Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules and Men” (1992), “Local Color” (1982, 1992), “Images of the South: Visits with Eudora Welty and Walker Evans” (1978), “Mississippi Black Folklore: A Research Bibliography and Discography” (1971) and “Blues from the Delta” (1970, 1978, 1988). His book “Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues” (2009) was published by the University of North Carolina Press and has now been translated into French.  His most recent book, “The Storied South: Voices of the Writers and Artists,” was published by the UNC Press in August last year.

Bill Ferris’ films include “Mississippi Blues” (1983), which was featured at the Cannes Film Festival. He has produced numerous sound recordings and hosted “Highway 61,” a weekly blues program on Mississippi Public Radio for nearly a decade. He also has published his own poetry and short stories.

A native of Vicksburg, Miss., Ferris was the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where he taught for 18 years. He also taught at Yale University and Jackson State University. A graduate of Davidson College, he received a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania (1969).


Ferris has won many prestigious honors, including the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities, the American Library Association’s Dartmouth Medal, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Lifetime Achievement Award, and the W.C. Handy Blues Award. In 1991, Rolling Stone magazine named him among the Top Ten Professors in the United States. He is a Fellow of the American Folklore Society.

At Carolina, Ferris teaches a course on the history of music in the American South and its impact on the region’s history and culture. His students have explored Native American songs, Appalachian folk ballads and Afro-American hymns, spirituals and work chants, and considered a range of forms including blues, country music, gospel, jazz, rock, and rap.  Ferris also teaches a course about the impact of oral traditions on southern literature.

Dr. Ferris has recently spoken about the value of the Humanities in higher education; you can see the video here. He was recently featured on the Authentic South-listen to this interview here.


FOLK/HIST 560: Southern Literature and the Oral Tradition
FOLK/HIST 571: Southern Music