William Ferris: A Little Bit of Story in Everything

The Storied South by William FerrisToday we welcome a guest post from William Ferris, author of The Storied South: Voices of Writers and ArtistsThe Storied South features the voices—by turn searching and honest, coy and scathing—of twenty-six of the most luminous artists and thinkers in the American cultural firmament, from Eudora Welty, Pete Seeger, and Alice Walker to William Eggleston, Bobby Rush, and C. Vann Woodward. Masterfully drawn from one-on-one interviews conducted by renowned folklorist William Ferris over the past forty years, the book reveals how storytelling is viscerally tied to southern identity and how the work of these southern or southern-inspired creators has shaped the way Americans think and talk about the South. The book includes a CD of original interviews and a DVD of original film. (The ebook includes embedded audio and video.)

In today’s post, Ferris explains how central storytelling is to a successful and fulfilling life in the South and, specifically, how it shows itself in art.


To Tell or Not to Tell a Story, that is the question. For the southerner, there is clearly no choice. Telling a story is always the best forum of communication. Whether teaching, trying a legal case, or having dinner with family, southerners are forever embroiled in storytelling. If you can tell a story well, you succeed in life, whatever your chosen profession.

Although I grew up on a farm in Mississippi and have taught folklore for over forty years, it has taken me a long time to fully appreciate the complexity and power of storytelling in my region. Only after working with interviews I made with southern writers, scholars, photographers, musicians, and painters did I fully understand the common thread they share—their love for the story. They tell stories to each other, just as they weave stories into their fiction, their academic writing, their photography, their songs, and their art.

Once you understand that storytelling is so central to southern life, you will understand how each person in The Storied South works their magic in powerful, enduring ways. Eudora Welty recalls the moment when she met William Faulkner, who took her sailing on Sardis Lake. Ernest Gaines warmly remembers the elderly aunt who inspired his novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Ed McGowin’s terrifying memory of his eccentric uncle who mowed off the heads of baby chickens he had buried in the ground still haunts his paintings.

In the South there is no choice but to tell a story—many stories—over and over again. These stories are part of daily life—as we email, talk on the phone, sit at breakfast. They define the very fabric of the literature, music, and art for which the region is known. From birth to death, we breathe stories. They teach us about our history, warn us about impending dangers, and celebrate a love for life that lies at the heart of each story.

Some discount stories as “hearsay” and argue they cannot be trusted. But the story delivers a deeper truth that captures the spirit, the inner feelings of a people in unforgettable ways.

Family tales are shared over holiday meals. But we never tire of listening because they ground us in our family and community. Our kinship and shared memory is reinforced by the story.

My grandfather loved to tell me the long, frightening story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. When he finished telling the tale, I would ask him, “Grandad, tell it again.” And he would patiently tell me the story again. No memory from my childhood burns brighter than this story and its telling by my grandfather.


William Ferris is Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he is author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues, among other books, and coeditor of the award-winning Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.