Selections from the Soundtrack Proposal for the film Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Part I – The Plantation


The first part of this soundtrack will be focused on Douglass’ early life on the plantation. As the film opens, the audience will hear a singular low voice moaning “I am going away to the Great House Farm! O yea! O yea! O!” (page 8) while the screen is pitch black. There will be a brief silence as the camera cuts to a harsh sunrise, quickly followed by the sound of (shoeless) feet trampling rhythmically in a field. The rhythm of the walking provides a beat for the continuation of the song, which becomes a chorus of voices repeating the lines slowly, with great effort. The occasional sound of a whip cracking in the distance [in surround sound, coming from the back right] and the sound of boots stomping add to the opening song, which utilizes only the human voice and these outdoor noises to form the composition. As the camera pans across the plantation, various farm noises are heard (birds, oxen, the sound of plowing). The chorus fades gently and gradually as an unseen narrator begins to say “I was born in Tuckahoe…” (1). This will instill in the audience a sense of the arduous rigor and continual suffering of plantation life.


Part II – Learning to Read

The initial act of Frederick Douglass learning the alphabet in the presence of Mrs. Auld will have no music; after Mr. Auld’s speech—beginning at the line “It would forever unfit him to be a slave” (20)—a violin quartet would start a dramatic crescendo; immediately following this crescendo the film cuts to a montage of the young Frederick Douglas “making friends of all the little white boys” (23) and learning various things from them, reading The Columbian Orator in secret, and copying the writing in Master Thomas’s book (26). The background music in this montage would give the audience a sense of inquisitive playfulness; Scott Joplin’s The Cascades would play delicately in the background, overlaid by the narrator’s voice giving a condensed version of a speech from pages 20-26, beginning at the line “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (20). Various noises are overlaid where thematically necessary; at the scenes near a shipyard (26), the clanking of metal and hammering of wood would be lightly present; more in focus would be the sound of his chalk scraping against the pavement (lines 17-18, page 26: “my copybook was the board fence, the brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk”). The music would end as the scene resolves with Douglass finishing some copy work out of Master Thomas’s book (26). This track will illustrate the intellectual character of Frederick Douglass and the pleasure of learning and exercising the mind—it will show his development into a free man, in mind if not yet body.


Part III – The Shipyard Fight


The scene where Frederick Douglass works at the shipyard would begin with Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, but would quickly become sordid with the taunts of the workers and the clanking of the shipyard. Maple Leaf Rag would be played at a third of the tempo, and the shouts on page 56 would be lengthened and exaggerated in fashion. As a mob began attacking him, Maple Leaf Rag would become distorted, much in the fashion that Hans Zimmer distorted Schubert’s Die Forelle in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. The music would be warped, slowed, overtaken with sounds from the shipyard, sounds of striking flesh, shouting, clanking—an ugly cacophony. At the moment the screen blackens, there will be a sudden and utter silence. The silence will be an effective means of shocking the audience with the cruelty faced by slaves even in the cities and the displays of inhumanity that occurred.

One thought on “Selections from the Soundtrack Proposal for the film Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  1. I really liked your ability to capture the entire cinematic experience, I think it’s important to imagine and describe what’s happening visually along with the sonic environment because both elements must benefit each other.Your imagining of the first scene would make for a powerful way to start off the story—certainly a much more faithful interpretation to the book than mine—which would effectively capture the true terror of slavery in an appropriately dramatic way. I also found your description of the sounds of the chaotic working environment of the Baltimore boatyard to be very similar to how I imagined the scene while reading it. This scene would contrast very well with the sounds of the shipyard in the North, and I would be interested to know how you would treat this scene.

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