Frederick Douglass’s account of his life from a slave in bondage to a free man is an intense story, heavy with fear, anger, and the longing for freedom. The role that sound plays in this story is prominent and sound is a vital part of Douglass’s narrative. These sounds were a part of Douglass’s life as much as the sights he saw or the things he touched. To most accurately capture the soundscape of the antebellum south as Douglass portrays it, the most vital keynote sounds must be utilized in a serious, dramatic manor of storytelling. The role of silence versus noise, singing and group song, and the sounds of southern labor are the keynotes of the soundscape in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, as they contribute to the major themes of Douglass’s tale while enriching his compelling, descriptive narrative.
The sound backdrop for most of Douglass’s narrative is the grueling noise of labor. What this would sound like is hard to imagine; no cars rattling by, no airplanes yawning overhead, no electronic chatter. What this soundscape should be characterized by is the sound of labor, bondage, and slavery. The snapping flash of the cowhide whip, the “heart rendering shrieks”(3, 2) of flesh being from the backs of the “gory victim” (4, ~) and the dripping of hot blood where the everyday sounds that Douglass endured. Douglass and slaves like him took the “cursing, raving, cutting and slashing”(7, 1) from the “savage monster[s]”(3,2) that were their overseers, and were powerless to do anything but silently comply.
The clamor of sounds that describe life on the plantation is directly countered by the silence of the northern shipyard. The noise of the plantation is a screaming, screeching cry for freedom while the silent shipyard, free from “deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer” (67,1) represents the tranquility of the free men who own their labor and lives. In the midst of the silent workers, “all seemed to go smoothly on.” (67,1). Silence equating freedon and noise representing fear and oppression frequent Douglass’s narrative and are an important part in the recreation of the soundscape. For example, the soundtrack of Douglass teaching his fellow slaves to read in the Sabbath school would be a silent one, marked only by the occasional shuffling, low voices and chairs scraping against the floor. Douglass himself says that the slave owners would rather see their slaves engaged in “degrading sports” such as “wrestling, boxing and drinking whiskey” (48, ~), all loud and noisy events, than “to see [them] behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings” (48, ~) in silence.
Finally, the role of singing in Douglass’s story is very prominent and would be an important part of the soundscape. However, Douglass presents singing in a different light, a negative one. He says that “slaves sing the most when they are the most unhappy”(9, 1). The songs of the slaves were “sung to drown [their] sorrow” (9,1) and therefore the songs in the soundtrack of this story would underly the pain and agony the slaves endured. Minor keys and slow, weary melodies would characterize these songs. Struggling, gasping voices and drawn out notes would convey the desperate state of the slaves, while the sound of many voices blending together would represent the large body of enslaved people. The songs of the slaves would, overall be a major part of the soundtrack for Douglass’s life.
To paint the soundscape of slavery for a dramatic, tense retelling of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, sounds able to convey the desperate affliction of the slaves would be vital. The role of sound in the narrative of the life of any person is to generate powerful emotions and describe the world around them. These keynote sounds and sound themes as described above would accurately portray the intensity of the journey to freedom and would supplement the moving tale of liberation from the dark chains of slavery.