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Blues History Coming To Stage And Screen At Vanderbilt

The blues are an inexhaustible American resource for music and humanism, but opportunities to understand this lineage and story beyond the superficial images in the media can be hard to find. Traveling in the deep South is one pathway for those willing to make the commitment, but sometimes through the efforts of scholars and preservationists, the blues in its regional authenticity comes to us. The upcoming Voices Of Mississippi tour is a good example.

On Sept. 15, a traveling revue of key artists will land for one night at Vanderbilt University’s Ingram Hall for a show mingling premium live blues with a multimedia story drawn from the work of the legendary folklorist Bill Ferris.

The ticket would be worth it for the music alone, which makes a multi-generational picture of blues evolution. Bobby Rush is the 89-year-old wonder from Pine Bluff, AR who broke out in the hotbed of post war Chicago and who became the “King of the Chitlin’ Circuit” for his decades of showmanship. On the bill are brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson, scions of Memphis and North Mississippi rock and roll, sons of the late, great Jim Dickinson. Their band the North Mississippi Allstars is not too far from the 30th anniversary of establishing their “world boogie” sound. Their journey was in many ways impelled by knowing the late fife and drum master Otha Turner, and Otha’s granddaughter Shardé Thomas, inheritor of the Rising Stars Fife & Drum Band, will perform as well.

Making this more than merely an excellent roots music triple bill will be photos, audio, and film clips drawn from the Grammy Award-winning box set Voices Of Mississippi: Artists And Musicians Documented By William Ferris. Dust To Digital, the boutique company that put out the impressive package of 3 CDs, one DVD, and a 120-page book, says it “represents the life’s work of William Ferris, an audio recordist, filmmaker, folklorist, and teacher with an unwavering commitment to establish and to expand the study of the American South.”

Ferris, who is now 81, grew up in Vicksburg, MS before getting a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. He worked over his career at Jackson State, Yale, and UNC Chapel Hill. He also chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities in the late 90s.

“No one has done more to preserve, protect, promote, and respect the voices and images of the South, in particular the Mississippi Delta, than William Ferris,” says Rosanne Cash in the event’s announcement. “His depth of knowledge and his meticulous research, combined with his reverence for his subject matter, is humbling and inspiring. Those of us who care about this culture, this music and these people owe him a great debt.”

Find tickets here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org