The Sounds of Frederick Douglass’ Freedom

As the soundtrack designer for the documentary based on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I have included several sounds in the soundscape that correspond with certain moments of Douglass’ experience as a slave, as well as his journey to becoming a free man.

I open the film with the deliberate, rhytmic cracking of a whip, which would correspond with a scene of an army of slaves, clad in rough, burlap-like linen, trudging through a steamy field with hoes and shovels. The cracking comes from the slave driver in the field, who is shown a few seconds later, snapping the whip to remind the slaves of their sure fate if they so much as stumble. Clanking chains then become audible in between the bites of the whip, in addition to some shrieking cicadas. These sounds would, together, create an aural image of what the daily lives of many slaves were like, including Douglass. They regularly faced unbearable weather conditions, hideous beatings, and unjust measures used by slave owners to drive home the point that “horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all [hold] the same rank in the scale of being” (Douglass 27). The owners did not want the slaves the feel the independence and freedom that comes with being human. They wished them to feel like beasts, like property. And in this, they almost always succeeded. In Douglass’ case, though he occasionally “wished [himself] a beast” (24), he refused to allow his sense of humanity to be completely taken away.

Following these sounds, I then introduce some piercing screams along with more violent whip cracking to correspond with a gory scene of Frederick Douglass being whipped into submission after attempting to make a runaway plan for himself and his friends. Although brutal and hard to listen to, these sounds were a relatively monotonous, expected note in the soundscape that was a slave’s daily life. Douglass, among many described whipping scenes in his narrative, tells of an instance where he watched his master “tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip…” (33). This frightful scene, sadly, was quite average for a slave to witness on a weekly basis.

Sounds illustrating Douglass’ churning desire for freedom and journey of education then begin to swell into the soundtrack of the documentary. As Douglass is shown taking reading and writing lessons from the young white boys in Baltimore, where he would “…bestow [bread] upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give [him] that more valuable bread of knowledge” (23). To correspond with scenes such as this, the voices of many small boys can be heard uttering words slowly, in a preschool-teacher-like fashion, and then Douglass’ deep, resonant voice follows, clumsily repeating those words. Beethoven’s famous classical piano piece Fur Elise floats and flutters throughout these educational scenes, bestowing an air of intelligence and class upon Douglass’ enlightenment process.

Douglass’ fight with Covey has no sounds besides the actual sounds of the fight, such as punches and grunts, to illustrate the pure, raw power of that moment in Douglass’ life. I would not include any dramatic music or low, brassy sounds, as they are unnecessary. The scene is dramatic enough to stand on its own. As the “turning point in [his] career as a slave” (43), it should have no distraction from the essence of its impact. Following the fight, Douglass’ journey north includes sounds of birds twittering cheerfully, leaves crunching in the woods, and some low, rumbling hymns in Douglass’ voice. These sounds contribute to showing the audience of this documentary the sounds Douglass likely heard as he picked his way carefully northward in his flight. The natural sounds of these free animals, taunting Douglass with their carefree noise, serve as a kind of motivation for him as he crept stealthily through the woods with nothing to comfort him but his own mind.

At last, once Douglass reaches the endpoint of his exhausting, both mentally and physically, life journey from slave to freeman, a lone, quiet trumpet solo glides simply in the background of the scene as Douglass takes in his new surroundings, unmarked by the slave owner’s whip or his own blood. The simplicity of the bright, brassy solo evokes both feelings of sadness and pride, both of which were likely felt by Douglass after his experience due to leaving his friends, yet fulfilling a space in him that had forever before been empty.

3 thoughts on “The Sounds of Frederick Douglass’ Freedom

  1. I was really captured by your opening few statements and the depth of the scene that you establish. Your imagery of armies and beasts really burned a very disturbing yet poignant scene in my mind. I also really enjoyed the natural soundscape going on behind Douglass’s fight with Covey. I also really appreciated your usage of several different points in the story because it displayed auditory progression.

  2. Like Sarah, I think your choice to leave the scene with Covey free of dramatic music is very unique, and by only including the actual noises of the brawl you draw attention to the impact of the scene. Also, your inclusion of bird noises as negative sounds to “taunt” Douglass is also very interesting because usually birds are associated with happiness. Your dichotomy of the freedom of nature and the captivity of slavery is very provocative.

  3. I like your idea of having the sounds of Douglass’s fight with Covey be strictly those of conflict; I think it gives a good idea of how vital and instrumental it was for Douglass in his journey to freedom.

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