What I Hear: An Interpretation of the Heard Worlds of the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

When prompted to recreate the heard worlds from Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I am excited by the opportunity.  To best convey my ideal soundtrack for a historical epic drama interpretation of Douglass’ work, I will describe by plan in three parts.  First, I will describe a scene involving Mr. Severe and his whipping.  Next, I will address the fight between Douglass and Mr. Covey.  And lastly, I will discuss the sounds that will be purposely omitted from my work.

Part I – The Ruthless Whip

Douglass describes a scene where he observes Mr. Severe, an overseer, relentlessly whip a woman in front of her children.  “I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release” (Douglass 7).  When deciding what sounds should be prominently featured, I first imagine the scene.  By visualizing how I would like it to be portrayed in my film I can decide which sounds are necessary to highlight.  There will be the whip with its crack like some hellish creature.  I am also drawn to highlight the raw sounds of the moment.  For instance, the dragging of Mr. Severe’s shoes along the dirt.  Maybe he will drag the woman away from her children as well.  Mr. Severe will wipe the sweat of his brow, emphasizing the dragging of his hand along his face through his glistening sweat.  There will be a little cackling.  Mr. Severe is described as “profane swearer” whose words were “…enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man” (Douglass 7).  His voice will be coarse; his words spat out in guttural tones.  I want to convey a harsh feeling through this work.

Part II – The Showdown

Douglass describes his confrontation with Mr. Covey as “the turning-point in my career as a slave,” instilling within him “a sense of my own manhood” (Douglass 43).  To highlight the significance of this encounter, I would set the fight to the backdrop of the only song of the film.  I am inclined to use a portion from the song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” as performed by Santa Esmeralda.  I have attached the portion below for your listening pleasure.  The scene would start with Mr. Covey knocking Douglass to the stable floor.  There will be the crunching of hay and the dull thud of flesh against earth.  Douglass rebels by seizing “Covey hard by the throat” (Douglass 42).  Again, I want to focus on the raw sounds.  Covey will grasp for breath a bit, and when he escapes from Douglass’ grasp he will retreat with quick, dull stomps.  After he calls for help and is refused the music will begin.  It starts off with a quick-ordered clapping and continues with a guitar melody.  This is a watershed moment in Douglass’ life, and the music is a testament to the internal struggle that he has had to deal with up to this point.  At his lowest low, Douglass is acting instinctually.  His will to survive and to be free is what drives him to fight back.

Dont Let Me Be Misunderstood (Selection) – Santa Esmeralda

Part III – Omissions

This southern antebellum period is one marked by the darkness of slavery.  As such, the film should reflect the prevailing feeling of the time period.  There was little to no happiness for the slaves during this time.  In order to best reflect this, there will be no laughter in the film.  Cackling is okay, but no joyous laughter.  In fact, no joyous tones at all.  Other than the one song that I have included in the soundtrack, there will be no music and the dancing and clapping associated with it.

Mark Smith, in his essay, “Listening to the Hear Worlds of Antebellum America,” describes a concept of keynote sounds.  He says that they are “sounds that imprint ‘themselves so deeply on the people hearing them that life without them would be sensed as a distinct impoverishment” (Smith 159).  The keynote sounds I would focus on would be those associated to work in the fields and punishment.  These include: the cracking of the whip, the dragging of feet on dirt, the shuffling through the fields, the pleading for mercy by the slaves, the yelling of the overseers, and the quiet, helpless crying of the slaves.  Each of these sounds were heard daily becoming ingrained in the psyche of the slaves.  These tones of servitude were their prison.

 

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.

Smith, Mark M. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Ed. Michael Bull and Les Back. Oxford: Berg, 2003. 137-63. Print.

4 thoughts on “What I Hear: An Interpretation of the Heard Worlds of the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

  1. I like both the song you’ve chosen, and the decision for it to be the only song in the film. This would make it that much more noticeable, in contrast with the “silence” in the rest of the film (it wouldn’t really be silent, but the sound of whippings or feet dragging across the dirt without any background music would instill a sort of suffocating quiet). The use of song only for the fight scene would help to cement that scene as a symbolic turning point. The song was also a perfect fit–I felt the mounting tension just by listening to that small clip!

  2. I really like this music clip. I think both it and the sounds you describe; the “dull thud of flesh against earth” and the “raw” texture capture the darkness and primal nature of the fight scene between Douglass and Covey. I like the way you portray it as a raw, feral moment. Douglass’s liberation from slavery is bloody and harsh, and the soundscape should be too.

  3. I think it is unnecessary to eliminate “all joyous tones” as Fredrick Douglass’ story is one of optimism and achievement. Through knowledge and sheer will Douglass triumphs over the institution he so deeply abhors. Is this not reason to feel some joy or happiness?

  4. I appreciate that you would leave out ANY joyous sounds at all, including laughter and music. I imagine that even the seemingly most joyful occasions of a slave’s life (for example, holidays, marriage, and childbirth) would still be tainted by the sorrow of bondage, and this sorrow must not be forgotten in a film about Frederick Douglass. Your decision to omit any happy sounds exemplifies this pervasive sadness.

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