Frederick Douglass Soundscape

As I read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I kept imagining a ten part History Channel documentary as the ideal way to capture this story in film. An omniscient narrator whose voice rumbles with obscure analogies would clarify feelings and events before and after scenes of importance in the narrative. I will delve into detail in a select few scenes in the proceeding paragraphs.

The film would begin with narrator reading the introductory paragraph of the book leading into a scenic country side in Maryland, where Douglass was born (Douglass 1). The sound of horse hooves dragging through muck covered forest roads would ease itself into the soundscape from the left while a gust of wind crept through the willow trees, causing their depressed branches to cry out and moan as the long leaves tickled each other. The narrators bellowing voice would stand unattested as the dominant noise seeing as there is no infernal hum of combustion engines. The camera, 1080p of course, would glide in from above the trees to under their cooling branches while the first paragraph was read.

Frederick Douglass, when he was a lad on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, often retrieved Master Daniel Lloyd’s birds when he went hunting (Douglass 16). The next scene would begin with a small, black boy’s face in the center; his fingers plunged deep within his ear canals, his faced winced as he braces for an unforeseen event. There is no noise as the camera fixates on his face, until a dull, deep pop resonates. At this point the camera would snap to a different perspective revealing a young, black slave and a wealthy man holding a shotgun. As the camera bounces out, sounds fly in. The wind moving the tall, dry grass creates an almost silent, yet still noticeably audible crackle. There are no animal noises immediately after the gun shot until the dull thud of the bird carcass cascades down into the grass. From that point on the unharmed pheasants squalls’ overwhelm the soundscape with the deep, rhythmic flush providing a consistent backdrop for Master Daniel Lloyd to snap, “Boy! Fetch that bird over yonder. Hurry now, we ain’t got all day.” As the crying birds escape auditory range, young Frederick’s bare, callused feet tattering through the tall dry grass formulate an outline for his scratchy broken English to respond with, “Yessir.”

Another scene I have painted, in my mind, a beautiful soundscape for is when Douglass was driving the cart of unbroken oven through the woods, before the crash and the wiping. As Douglass leads the ox into the woods, the scene would begin with the sound that startled the oxen, leading to the race through the woods (Douglass 35). In the text the sound is never specified, therefore my imagination takes over. Before I can determine the frightful sound I must paint the basic soundscape. The most noticeable may be the powerful panting of the two monstrous oxen. The two creatures would be heaving in sync so I imagine there breathes to coincide with their steps, resulting in a continuous, flat huffing acting like a simple bass line. There then are the actual sounds resulting from these behemoths walking. There steps would fall in a 4:4 whereas the panting would fall in a 2:4. These steps would resemble the snap of a snare drum on the densely packed mud trail. The wooden cartwheels would clatter as they bounced off rocks and roots making a wide variety of noises adding to the so far gentle soundscape. Douglass could be heard breathing and whispering, “Aye, aye, easy,” whenever the road became wobbly. All of a sudden I imagine an old dead tree which had been keeled over on a small branch suddenly gave way. All of a sudden the previously rhythmic, interrelated soundscape is interrupted by the ferocious snapping of wooden limbs and the thunderous impact of the old tree into the ground below. This causes the oxen to release whatever noise oxen are inclined to release when startled, and then begin to level small trees which pop like bones. Fragile, youthful branches tear off nearby trees as the cart screams through the woods and the moist branches whoosh through bushes and shrubbery. The peaceful symphony has now become an unpredictable, raging orchestra of so many sounds that you can’t distinguish each noise happening at a given moment.