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Music Review: Give My Poor Heart Ease by William Ferris (book/CD/DVD)

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Take a walk through people’s lives. That’s what the experience of exploring this combination book, CD and DVD is like. This isn’t history filtered through a strainer, or chopped into soundbites for commercialized interests such as many of the so-called documentaries and historical sagas we’ve grown accustomed to.
This book, CD and DVD all contain living history as it rolled out thirty or more years ago, when blues music was part of rural black family life, before it became a packaged “product” to sell. It’s life as it was lived, and we have the unlikely opportunity to take a meandering ramble through and closely observe the lives of the tellers.

The technique used on the CD, allowing the narrator to tell his or her personal story uninterrupted, unbroken by questions, comments, or other interruptions, adds tremendously to its compelling charm and magnetic interest. The book is broken into four sections, the largest of which is called “Blues Towns and Cities.” It’s dedicated to James “Son Ford” Thomas, whose song “Highway 61” is the namesake of this book, and who appears on both the CD and DVD. The remaining three sections are titled “Blues Roots,” “Looking Back,” and “Sacred and Secular Worlds.”

I read a concern that the book “is more transcription than well-written literature.” Aren’t the original words every bit as important as the author’s interpreted words? My contention is, they’re at least as, if not more important. Communication is as much expression, gesture, nuance, inflection, and accent as it is language. “Yeah. Right,” is a classic example. Stated without accent or inflection it means something 180-degrees from what it means with accent or inflection. A person says, “Sounds like a good deal.” Another says, “Wonderful!” Again, accent, inflection and gesture turns it 180-degrees, from praise to caustic sarcasm. Inflection is sometimes the entire language, such as in the Chinese language. One word can mean several different things, based solely on inflection, and the same in English.

As the author said in a separate interview, “… I felt that the real book lay in ‘freeing’ the voices of each speaker and letting them all tell their own story,” changing “the book’s perspective from that of a white scholar talking about music to that of black speakers describing their lives and how music shaped their worlds.” The relative obscurity of most of the people filmed, recorded, and written of doesn’t make them any less a star. It matters only if money is the final measure.

The CD is a collection of narratives and tunes that have all contributed to the evolution and development of “Mississippi Music,” if there is such a thing. Musicians include blues and gospel performed by Parchman Farm inmates, Sonny Boy Williamson, the Southland Hummingbirds, and the previously mentioned James “Son Ford” Thomas. Some of the 22 selections on the CD are previously unreleased.

The DVD is a selection of seven features, all filmed by Ferris in 1968 and 1975. Some are less polished than others, which to me simply reinforces their authenticity. The hand-printed storyboards, for instance, in the first film add a cachet that can’t be manufactured.

The seven films cover a gamut of black country life during the time. The primitiveness of the living standard of the people with a shot of a family living in near-heartbreak conditions evolves into a vignette of the man of the house managing to be upbeat enough to fashion a diddley-bow on the outer wall of the house. [A Diddley-bow is also called a diddy-bow, a one-string, a jitterbug, or in technical parlance, a monochord zither. It’s usually built against an outside wall of a building for stability. It was usually made with two nails or screws mounted a couple of feet apart, with a rock or block of wood acting as a bridge to elevate the wire. The wire was usually taken from a worn-out straw broom. Then another rock or heavy bottle is sometimes used to temper the sound that comes when the wire is plucked.] Click here for detailed information or here for an entire website devoted to this instrument.

The primitiveness of that scene carries over into footage of a local band, a trio, their instruments a straw broom swishing and scraping the floor, two bent coat-hangers keeping rhythm on a cardboard box and a metal kitchen chair leg, and a guitar.

The films are a treasure trove of information for an anthropologist, showing how a man makes a clay mask, limning and fashioning the details with a small stick, and adding kernels of corn for teeth; a highly emotional church service, leading into a waterside mass baptism; prisoners working and at church at Parchman Farm; BB King as a radio announcer and a performer, including a scene which gives a whole new meaning to the words barbershop quartet, especially since only two musicians were present. Everything from abject poverty to religious euphoria to drinking in juke joints to Parchman Farm to Beale Street before its rejuvenation to BB King with his suit and tie and signature gold rings is included. Were an anthropological writer decide to, s/he could write a career’s worth of books, papers and treatises from the content of just this one package of book, CD and DVD.

The book boasts 20+ interviews, the CD 22 selection, and the DVD 7 short but highly interesting films. Ferris also donated a set of 45 prints pertaining to these items to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

The University of North Carolina will be producing a stage play featuring “… a series of readings enhanced with field recordings, photographs, films and live performances” some time this year.

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