Teacher’s album about Mississippi voices is nominated for a Grammy

UNC professor and folklorist Bill Ferris creates a portrait of rural creativity

William Ferris’ “Voices of Mississippi” won a 2019 Grammy for Best Historical Album of the Year.
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William Ferris’ “Voices of Mississippi” won a 2019 Grammy for Best Historical Album of the Year.

When word came that UNC professor William Ferris had just been nominated for a Grammy Award at the age of 76, his first thought was, “This is another planet.”

And yet it is very much of this earth.

His nomination for Best Historical Album is for “Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris,” a lavish four-disc box set drawn from Ferris’ archive. “Voices” has discs devoted to blues, gospel and storytelling, as well as a DVD of some of Ferris’ films.

“Voices” earned a second Grammy nomination, too, for David Evans’ liner notes in the 120-page hardback book that accompanies the package.

Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

In recent years, releases by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Hank Williams have won Best Historical Album. But with no obvious big-name ringers in this year’s field, Ferris seems to have a good shot at taking home a Grammy — which would be a well-deserved exclamation point to one of the most quietly influential careers in the field of folklore.

Ferris being Ferris, however, he waves off such talk and would rather discuss other nominees he’s looking forward to seeing at the Feb. 10 Grammy ceremonies in Los Angeles.

“One of my former students, Ted Olson at East Tennessee State, is also nominated,” Ferris said. “He’s a prodigy, a very impressive and productive young guy. It will be good to catch up with him. Quincy Jones, too, he’s been an old friend for many years. Ever since we worked on (Steven Spielberg’s) ‘The Color Purple’ together.”

Ferris was born and raised in Mississippi, growing up on a farm and working alongside people of color at a time when that was unusual. He began taking pictures and making recordings of vernacular artists at an early age, long before entering academia.

In the process, Ferris built an archive of Mississippi culture as wide and deep as any ever created.

“I did it for no reason other than love,” Ferris said. “It touched my heart and I felt these voices were significant and needed to be recorded, photographed, filmed. There was no such thing as the field of Southern studies back then. We had to invent the field as we moved along, and it’s a field that has taken on enormous energy and relevance.”


The 61st annual Grammy Awards telecast starts at 8 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday, Feb. 10, on CBS. A livestream of the pre-telecast portion can be seen at grammy.com.

Other North Carolina Grammy nominees

J. Cole — The Fayetteville rapper shares the nomination for Best R&B Song for Miguel’s “Come Through and Chill.” He is also up for Best Rap/Sung Performance for contributing to 6lack’s “Pretty Little Fears.” Cole has had seven nominations over the years but has yet to win a Grammy.

Iron & Wine — Chapel Hill resident Sam Beam’s “Weed Garden” is up for Best Folk Album. This is his second nomination, following last year’s nod for Best Americana Album.

Dom Flemons — The former Carolina Chocolate Drop’s “Black Cowboys” is also nominated for Best Folk Album. He previously won a Grammy with the Chocolate Drops, Best Traditional Folk Album for 2010’s “Genuine Negro Jig.”

David Sedaris — Raleigh native’s “Calypso” is nominated for Best Spoken Word Album. This is his third spoken-word nomination, after 2009 and 2014.

Dafnis Prieto Big Band — Eric Oberstein of Durham, who is acting director of Duke Performances, produced the Cuban act’s “Back to the Sunset,” which is up for Best Latin Jazz Album. Oberstein has previously won four Grammys.

Virtual Self — Chapel Hill’s Porter Robinson performs as the electronic-music deejay Virtual Self, nominated for Best Dance Recording for “Ghost Voices.”

Between the Buried and Me — Raleigh band picked up its first nomination, for Best Metal Performance.

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David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.