The Soundtrack of Slavery

Soundtrack Proposal for the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass has had an extraordinary journey from entering the world as a slave, to ending his life as an abolitionist. Throughout his time as a slave, he experienced many sounds that some would deem horrific. However, it was the constant repetition of these sounds that made them jaded. Eventually these became the “quiet” southern lives that the north believed southerners led. Douglass became so acclimated to these sounds that they became the Keynote sounds in his atmosphere. What once was new to him, and the rest of the slaves on the plantation, became a form of ambient noise that managed to blend into the soundscape around them. Building a soundtrack for a film based on the narrative of Frederick Douglass would have to accentuate the sounds that have faded into their background. The constant sounds of the whips, screams, and torment that have become normal in the lives of the slaves, would need to be brought out in order to illuminate their hardships. Any songs that would be added to the soundtrack would have a somber tone that brings the viewer into the slaves’ dreary lives.

The Sounds of Slavery:

The south was thought to be much quieter than the buzz of northern industrious expansion, so it is only fitting that the film begins with silence. Nothing is seen but the moon over Douglass’ plantation, still, under the night sky. Slowly Douglass’ low melodic voice would begin: “I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an aunt of mine” (3). Light starts to settle over the plantation as the silence is promptly disrupted by a woman’s shriek for mercy immediately followed by the sound of the whip tearing into her soft flesh. Each blood-curdling scream is accompanied by the whip’s sharp crack and the low murmur of Douglass crying in the near distance forced to watch and listen to the warm drops of blood hit the floor like soft taps on a wooden table. The lashing sounds followed by shrill cries slowly get louder and louder as an orchestra of strings builds intensity. As the orchestra reaches a climax, one last crack of the whip and one final scream are heard. Silence follows as the sun rises over the plantation. Silence continues as the sun rises and is then disrupted by shrill blast of the horn signaling the beginning of the day’s work. Almost instantaneously the plantation bursts to life. A drum line can be heard keeping a steady beat every two measures.  Among the drum line can be heard the sounds of the plantation. Feet shuffling. The groans of an overworked slave collapsing from the heat. The sound of the whip against the backs of slaves, though audible, is overlooked since it has become so engrained in their daily routine. Fragments of vulgarity can be heard loudly from Mr. Severe on his rounds with his whip. One voice begins a wild song from the field soon to be joined by others as they sing “pathetic sentiments in the most rapturous tone” (8) symbolizing their unhappiness. The “O, yeah! O, yeah! O!” chorus from the song of the Great House Farm (8) can vaguely be heard over the other exultations. The rhythm of the drum line does not stop nor does the work of the slaves. Only when the day’s work is over does the drum line begin to fade back into silence. These are the sounds associated with the soundtrack of this Southern life that the slaves have grown accustomed

Music Selection:

The song I have decided would best fit the film is “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash. This song presents a somber tone that would add to the daunting lives of the slaves. Johnny Cash’s voice would echo over the crippled bodies of the working slaves as they toiled in the fields. Cash’s lyrics also attribute to the film with lines such as “My head’s been whipped with the midnight dues,” and “Working in the dark against your fellow man” to help illustrate the violence and toil that Douglass and his fellow slaves on the plantation had to endure. The chorus and repetition of “sooner or later God will cut you down” provides what could have been the mindset of many slaves wishing for death or mercy as a way out of the hellish life that was dealt to them.


Here is a link for Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”

2 thoughts on “The Soundtrack of Slavery

  1. I love the song you included. I listened to it and reread your description of the soundscape and it made the whole scenario more vivid and powerful. I can hear the hardships of slave life in the song. However I was confused because your description includes music cues. How would the song fit in with the scene you described?

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