By featuring their voices firsthand in this book,
I attempt to give the reader the opportunity to hear,
from the inside as much as possible, voices, stories,
and music that are the roots of the blues.” — William Ferris
This book first explores the musical roots of the blues, starting with the stories and hymns of Mary Gordon and Reverend Isaac Thomas in the Rose Hill community. The voices of Scott Dunbar (traditional songster), Louis Dotson (one-strand guitar player), Fannie Bell Chapman
(gospel singer and faith healer), Otha Turner (fife player), Johnny Lee “Have Mercy” Thomas (former Parchman Penitentiary inmate), Tom Dumas (fiddle and banjo player), and Lee Kizart (blues pianist), among others, come next. Each speaker describes musical traditions that shaped the blues in significant ways.
The book’s second section is set in black neighborhoods like Kent’s Alley in Leland and the Brickyard in Clarksdale where the blues developed in dramatic ways. In Leland, we meet James “Son Ford” Thomas, Gussie Tobe, and Shelby “Poppa Jazz” Brown; in Clarksdale, Jasper Love and Wade Walton; in Jackson, WOKJ radio announcer Bruce Payne; and in Memphis, clothing salesman Robert Shaw.
The third section looks back on the blues through two of the most significant figures in blues history, composer and performer Willie Dixon and performer B. B. King.
The fourth and final section joins sacred and secular worlds by documenting a Rose Hill church service and a Clarksdale blues house party, each of which celebrates and affirms the spirit in distinctive ways.
All images from the William R. Ferris Collection, Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Library,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, unless otherwise noted.