Adam Sullivan Douglass Soundscape

While written descriptions and visual representations of antebellum America are numerous, the only auditory perspective available in the twenty-first century is secondhand, at best. Our notion of what America in the 1800s may have sounded like comes only from textual evidence and a knowledge of the types of activities which would have been present. Still, it is possible to construct what is most likely an accurate soundscape.
Were I to design a soundtrack for a film about the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I would focus on the key aspects of sound which are crucial for certain scenes. Take, for example, the scene in which a young Douglass witnesses the whipping of his Aunt Hester. Because it takes place indoors, this moment would have very little background noise, except maybe the occasional muffled and unrelated voices from outside. Rather than background sounds, this scene would revolve around four main sonic points: Aunt Hester’s voice, Colonel Lloyd’s voice, the whip, and Douglass’ silence. Colonel Lloyd says the only words in the scene. He orders Aunt Hester to cross her hands and climb onto a stool. He calls her a “d—-d b—-h,” and tells her, “I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” (Douglass 4). The angry, punitive tone of his voice is impossible to miss. During these lines, one would hear Aunt Hester quietly stepping onto the stool, and the clink of metal as Colonel Lloyd ties her hands to the hook. There would be a brief moment of hushed anticipation, as Lloyd rolls up his sleeves. Then, the audience would be struck with a barrage of sounds. Starting with the initial, piercing crack of the whip, the room fills with “heard-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him” (5). However, Douglass then hides himself in the closet. Because the scene is told from his perspective, the sounds would change. The screams, whips, and yelling would become muffled, replaced by the quick, shallow breaths of a young boy in bondage who has just been introduced to the brute cruelty of his world.
I would also juxtapose two of the ship-yard scenes from the book, one in Baltimore and one in New Bedford. Douglass had a job at both these ship-yards, and he describes the sounds of both. For the scene in Baltimore, I would focus on the voices of Douglass’ fellow workers calling him from all sides to help. The scene would be filled with shouts of, “Come here! — Go there! — Hold on where you are! Damn you, if you move, I’ll knock your brains out!” (56). The frantic atmosphere would build as countless voices yell at Douglass. The culminating point of the scene would be his fight with the workers. As the air fills with voices, the occasional sound of a fist hitting Douglass would come through, followed by Douglass’ immediate retaliation. Finally, as the fight grows, the sounds would become indiscernible shouting and hitting as the workmen cry, “Kill the damned nigger!” (57). These sounds would slowly fade as Douglass escapes and runs back to the Hugh household.
The Baltimore scene would parallel the scene in which Douglass begins working as a calker on the wharves of New Bedford. The quiet, individual work in the North provides a stark contrast to the loud, forced group labor of the South. Douglass notes, “Almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses from the laborer” (67). To amplify this comparison, I would fill the New Bedford scene with the sounds of the ships creaking in the tide and pedestrians talking on the land. There would be no shouts from a master, no crack of the whip, no hostile words between workers. Rather, this scene would exemplify the industrious and individualized work environment to be found in New Bedford. The distant sound of machinery and crowds would remind the audience that Douglass is no longer in the world of slavery, but that, instead, he has reached the land of progress, industrialism, and freedom.

5 thoughts on “Adam Sullivan Douglass Soundscape

  1. I too appreciated the contrast in sounds between the two shipyards. You did an exceptional job demonstrating the tension between the North and the South by aurally examining the two working soundscapes. I also appreciated your volume changes over the course of the changing scenes. Each contains appropriate amounts of silence and vibration and this shows how integral silence is to the aural development of scenes. I was wondering how you would balance quiet with noise in the reading scenes in Baltimore.

  2. Sarah- I did not describe in depth the background noises of the Baltimore scene because there is important sound in the foreground which takes precedence. I suppose the background sounds would be similar in both scenes. However, the more prominent sounds of forced labor in Baltimore would resonante with the ordinary noises of a shipyard differently than would the sound of free work in New Bedford.

    Alex- Adding music to these scenes was something I considered, then decided against. The best sonic representation of Douglass’ experiences at the shipyards can only be found in the sounds of the shipyard and events themselves. I know this doesn’t answer your question, but I intentionally left music out because I felt that any other sounds, especially a possibly anachronistic, sub-par musical accompaniment, would detract from the importance of what must be heard to accurately portray the scene.

    Max- Thank you!

  3. I liked how you included Douglass’ silence as one of the four sonic elements to the Aunt Hester scene. His silence is just as impactful, if not more, than the noises heard during the scene. Also, I enjoyed the contrast between the two shipyards (one being chaotic, and the other being calm and quiet). It was important that you did not just say the New Bedford shipyard was quiet, but instead you went into detail about the sounds one might hear during the quietness to emphasize the calmness of the New England ship yard. Well done!

  4. You speak of the juxtaposition of the two different shipyard scenes. If you were to add music to the two scenes, how would they be similar and how would they be different?

  5. Both the Baltimore and New Bedford scenes were in a shipyard; would the background noises be relatively similar, or would you choose not to include them at all in the Baltimore scene due to the chaos and commotion Douglass experienced?

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