Something shapes people. It’s the world in which they act that makes their experience, that furnishes the economic background that he grows up in and the folkways and the stories that come down to him and his family. It’s the fountainhead of his knowledge and experience. One of the reasons Southerners have this to talk about is that they don’t have much else to talk about—it’s their source of entertainment, besides their source of knowledge. You’ve got the family tales to wile away a long winter evening, and that’s what they have to drawn on, especially in the little hamlets where people sit on the store porch and talk in the evenings. All they have to talk about is each other and what they’ve seen during the day and what happened to so-and-so and also encourages our sense of exaggeration and the comic, I think. Because tales get taller as they go along. It is a pleasure but it’s also something of deep significance to people.
Eudora Welty’s introductory dialogue in the 1977 documentary film Four Women Artists, by William Ferris, is also a metacommentary on the filmmaker himself. Ferris was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1942, grew up on a farm outside town, and began documenting his friends and community at an early age. Between the fifties and the late seventies, he captured—in photographs and on tape and film—the stories, the songs and music, and the spirit of Southern culture during Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights: among his subjects are musicians James “Son Ford” Thomas, Sonny Boy Watson, Lovey Williams, and Fannie Bell Chapman, and the writers Barry Hannah, Alex Haley, Alice Walker, and Robert Penn Warren. Best known as a folklorist, Ferris founded, with the filmmaker Judy Peiser, the Center for Southern Folklore, in Memphis, in 1972; in 1979, he became the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where he taught for nearly two decades. In 1989, he coedited the Pulitzer Prize–nominated Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and, in 1997, was named chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Read More