letter regarding book/JUKE BLUES

On 14 Apr 2010, at 07:51, Peter B. Lowry wrote:

Dear Cilla –

Here goes my reaction to Ferris’ book, as promised/threatened! It’s taken a while because I do things in spurts and then let them fester!! Hope this is OK.

I have noted the reviews (mainly positive) of Bill Ferris’ latest book [Give My Poor Heart Ease] both in these pages (#168; p.73.) and in those of the competition (B&R #245; p. 45.). In the latter’s review, Howard Rye writes mainly in detail about the music CD and the DVD that accompany the book (discographer uber alles!), being generally broadly descriptive of the transcribed interview materials that make up the main printed text. John Barnie in these pages spends more time on those transcriptions after giving us a precis on Bill’s life and his collected materials from 1967 – 1976 in Mississippi. I was fortunate enough to be loaned a copy of the book (et al) by an artist friend from Taralga (NSW) who read about in the NY Review of Books, or some such journal. Having spent some time with the book, now, I must say that I have some problems with both the book and method of presentation of the collected spoken material.

While Ferris attended The University of Pennsylvania in Folklore (as did I), he must have matriculated before the now-late Dell Hymes joined their faculty at The Annenberg School of Communications. If that be the case, he missed out on Dell’s explications of the innate poesy embedded in spoken word “performances” (which he dubbed academically “ethnopoetics”). Throughout the main text of the book, made up of various spoken transcriptions, Bill omits (on stated purpose) at least half of the participants in the various speech activities… namely himself, and any other audience members. Additionally, he often puts material together from more than one speech event to create a longer narrative piece from an individual informant without indicating the “joins” involved.

This is bad folklore on two counts. By leaving out the audience, including himself and his questions, Ferris artificially denies his informants the proper context for what they had to say – his sectional introductory pieces are insufficient set-up. By artificially editing together disparate events, he’s gone way past fudging things into a realm of dishonesty that surprises me. At least he says that he has done so. In addition, the actual laying out of the comments on the page tends to be emotionally and literally flat, pedestrian, and (dare I say it!) prosaic, taking all the life and poetry out of them. There is a crying need for a Hymesian “lining out” of the texts stanzaically to feel the rhythm(s) of their speech, even though that approach takes up more page space. Lacking is the vitality of the transcriptions in, say, Glenn Hinson’s FIRE IN MY BONES (2000), or Henry Glassie’s PASSING THE TIME IN BALLYMANONE (1995), both influenced by Dell’s approach.

While Ferris’ transcriptions have been favorably commented upon in various reviews and blurbs, I wonder how many of those writers are folks with much experience listening to the speech that is characteristic of poor Black “Americans” from the Deep South! Even for one such as myself who’s been-there-and-done-that, the words just lie there on the page, lifeless: many of those who comment favorably in the blurbs are possibly “hearing” the talk in their heads as a result of prior experience/knowledge/Blackness, something the average reader lacks in spades (no pun intended). Those words, those people, and Bill Ferris are done a dis-service as a result.

What’s good about the book? A couple of the transcriptions are OK… Gussie Tobe’s, for example, comes almost alive, while the Willie Dixon interview was more informative about his early days than his autobiography! I find the photographs to often be evocative, as well as the music CD (James Thomas’ “Cairo Blues” being most memorable) and the DVD worthwhile. The filming was rough-and-ready, but as good as could have been done inexpensively back in those days: it rings “true” to this viewer. Without voice-overs, it may be confusing to the lay viewer, though. The synchronization of image with sound is rather haphazard with the earlier B&W films – better with the later, color material (although faded), when the two were tied together well. That’s really what one is buying here, with the printed text an addendum to them… not a book with discs, but discs with a book! Reading the book while watching the films may be a good approach!

Bill Ferris continues to go back to the same well – it was of interest ca. 1970, but less so now after a number of trips there with diminishing returns. Strangely, Bill quotes from his late brother, Grey, on page 3, saying “I never knew anyone who went further on less than my brother.” I’ll leave it there… I know what he meant.

p.s. – In the oddly organized Selected Bibliography, the section labeled “Blues Regional Studies” has a listing for Bastin’s o.o.p. CRYING FOR THE CAROLINES (1971), but none for the award-winning later longer, deeper, and wider (and still available) RED RIVER BLUES (1986)! It’s nowhere to be found: I guess Bill hasn’t kept up with the latest (sic) on the SE region. The bibliography in general is strangely organized, with citations from all over the map grouped artificially, while the discography has some gaping lacunae in it over and above the lack of any Trix material (e,g.- Honeyboy Edwards, or Robert Lockwood) which is still available. I’m not taking it personally… I’m used to being ignored or left out… but merely puzzled by its incompleteness. One would expect better from an academic press, wouldn’t one?

Peter B.

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