Main Theme to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Depicting the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in film would be no easy task. True to its form, the narrative is a collection of memories from Douglass’ time immersed in the cruel, scary, and unforgiving world of slavery. Although Douglass recounts many fascinating and gripping tales that would leave moviegoers satisfied— albeit angry and disgusted, as they should be—much of the narrative’s power and impact comes from Douglass’ musings and opinions about what he experiences. Despite this fact, I would not make a documentary, because I find that they usually resonate less than well-made historical dramas. As a result, in an effort to compensate for the lack of narration, I think the music of the film should assume the complementary role to the scenes that the narration did in the book, providing an extra layer to the overall environment and feelings created by slavery. In the essay that follows, I will describe what is essentially the theme song to the movie, which would play in the opening credits to set the mood, and which would also be heard at various other moments throughout the film.

The main keynote sound would, not surprisingly, be the harsh crack of a whip. I would like to use the whip in place of a snare drum. I think interesting things could be done with the beat, and especially the whip sound, that would mirror the feelings of the time period. For example, a slight echo would be placed on the whip sound, causing it to repeat and fade out, but not completely before the next “snare” hit. In this way, the sound of the whip would never completely disappear, thus reflecting the lasting impression the whip has on the slaves. Its not as if the whipping happens and then it is over with; on the contrary, the torturous whippings serve as a constant reminder of the slaveholders power, the pain stays long after, and the memories and scars are forever. When recounting his first six hellish months with notorious slave breaker Mr. Covey, Douglas writes, “scarce a week passed without his whipping me. I was seldom free from a sore back” (36). Another component of the song would be the unusual time signature of 7/4, because this is not a rhythm we are accustomed to hearing. Even with the whip/snare falling at regular intervals, it would take a while to get used to it. The reason for doing this would be to reproduce the feelings of the slaves in regards to the violent whippings—despite their regularity, the slaves can never fully get used to them or accept them as commonplace, normal occurrences.

Another sound that would be in the song, probably just at the very beginning, would be a dark, ominous, and somewhat ambiguous growl. The growl would symbolize two things: the rumblings of Douglass’ stomach due to hunger, and the growls of a beast—a beast that the institution of slavery attempts to turn all slaves into. Douglass repeatedly references these two themes as facts of slavery. Douglass speaks of the “painful gnawings of hunger,” and writes, “A great many times have we poor creatures been nearly perishing with hunger, when food in abundance lay mouldering in the safe and smoke-house” (31). It could be argued that this hunger fed his rebellious nature, because he is willing to accept harsher conditions and many more whippings if he can “get enough to eat, which is not the smallest consideration to a hungry man” (34). The other theme the growl represents, the dehumanizing of slaves, is another thought that occupies much of Douglass’ time. He writes that when he is broken and slavery has engulfed him, he is “a man transformed into a brute,” who is worked to such exhaustion that he spends his scarce leisure hours in a “beast-like stupor” (38).

Although the film adaptation of this narrative would surely include much of the later portions of the book, where he learns to read and write, educates himself, starts to earn money in Baltimore, and eventually gains his freedom in the North, I do not think that the music should change during those scenes. Throughout the narrative is a pervading sense of secrecy, a constant reminder that although he has escaped, most slaves are not as fortunate. Slavery continues to exist. He continues to live in fear of being betrayed and kidnapped back into slavery, and his anger at the injustice of it all persists. Although he is now free, in the eyes of many, his identity is that of a runaway slave first, and a human being second. Since the music should be setting the backdrop in the film as his thoughts do in the narrative, the sounds of the growls, and even more importantly the whip, should be heard throughout the film, signifying that that his tale is not one of success, but of first steps; that although slavery is in his past, he will never be able to forget.

6 thoughts on “Main Theme to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  1. As I was working on another comment this song:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehtJC_cXjA8
    came up on my itunes shuffle. I realized that this might be a great example of what you could do with the incorporation of an offputting sound effect as a rhythmic element to a song. Imagine if instead of using the hammering sound, it were a whip crack. Hearing this crystalized my sense that thematically including a sound like that would be a great way to add to the retelling of this story.

  2. I also found your idea of having a theme song as a potentially useful way to tie together a narrative like this, while aslo representing the overall mood of the story in a powerful way. I think that it might be interesting to consider rather than making one song, per say, to take a few recurring elements (like a whip cracking, or some distinctive riff) and to incorporate them into different songs that more appropriately fit the shifting mood of the piece as it progresses. I also agree with your assertion that often times historical fiction can encourage more meaningful resonance amongst its viewers than a documentary can, however I’m not sure why you assume that there couldn’t be a narration along with it. I actually imagined a historical documentary including a strong first person vocal narration throughout the piece, much like, say Morgan Freeman’s excellent work with Shawshank Redemption. This could be used to help clarify the chronology, and shed valuable insight into the thoughts and feelings going on inside Douglas’ head throughout the retelling of his trials and tribulations.

  3. I like your analogy of the whip as a drum of sorts, I think this goes well with the idea that the fear of punishment is what drove the slaves along. I think a whip is a perfect background noise for this soundscape – like drums drive a song forward in real life, so the whip drives the slaves forward.

  4. I also really love the idea of a reoccurring song throughout the movie. I think the cracking of the whip is especially moving– there will always be that constant reminder of the pain of slavery. Also, I think the gnawing of hunger is another great keynote sound– both are great choices for showing Douglass’s pain throughout his life. I kind of agree with Perry though– maybe the keynote sounds should change when he gets to freedom? Or perhaps they could just be quieter and more faint, like he could hear them sometimes softly as memories or something like that.

  5. I understand the reason behind keeping the sound of the whip throughout the film due to the persistence of slavery but would it not distract from Douglass’s accomplishments in the second part of the book?

  6. I really like the concept of creating a theme song for the film, especially regarding the incorporation of the keynote sound of a cracking whip. The 7/4 time signature is another interesting choice; most individuals aren’t used to its irregular sound, and thus would likely express some auditory discomfort upon first listening to the rhythm of the song. I would agree that it would certainly supplement the irregular flow of punishment and other functions of plantation life.

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