In order to create a soundtrack that addresses the sounds cape of Fredrick Douglass’ self narrated life story, it seems prudent to attempt to transpose familiar sounds and patterns that might evoke emotions and imagery in synch with the emotions evoked by Douglass. Hearing is a sense that we unconsciously regulate, literal sounds and songs described by Douglass in his narrative, while imaginable, are un familiar to us. They do not invoke the same emotions and thoughts when we hear them as they do when they fall upon the ears of the individuals in Douglass’ time. I would propose an unconventional approach to a soundtrack for a recreation of the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass. Imagine an interactive media format in which the limitless capabilities of the internet are at your disposal. The main plot points and episodes of the narrative are displayed, and the viewer/ listener can chose songs for each section of the story. Music and song can express and stimulate emotional sensory and understanding. This is exemplified in the songs sung by slaves in 19th century America. But the songs of these slaves provide a soundtrack that is specific to their own plight and experiences. We may be able to absorb the communicated themes and emotions in the song, but they are not our own. By offering the option of choice to the viewer/listener,  a greater connection is created. Each scene in the narrative has its own standard sounds, cracking whips, yelling voices, and the grunts and noise of labor perhaps. However, layered over these sounds is the song chosen by the viewer/listener that is meaningful and specific to that individual in particular. This would allow for a deeper connection and understanding of the soundscape of history by connecting it to modern day noise, music specifically. To provide an example of the logistics of such a medium for narration, I will attempt to divide Douglass’ story into sections, applying songs from specific artists that I feel would tie my own soudnscape to Douglass’. For the first episode, we can take the period in which Douglass resides on the “Great House Farm”. Perhaps a track like “Money” by Pink Floyd could encapsulate the image of economic extortion that is exemplified in the plantation structure of the Great Farm. As Douglass moves into the city of Baltimore, education is the theme of his dialogue. Maybe another Pink Floyd hit “The Wall” would be appropriate to describe the mentality of the slave owner who breeds ignorance through censorship. When Douglass is sent to Covey, and the two men do battle, a song such as “Suicide and Redemption”, a heavy metal, cathartic instrumental by Metallica’s Kirk Hamett would be provide an emotional tie to Douglass’ baptism by combat. In Baltimore, as he works to learn a new trade, Douglass could be seen accompanied by the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night”. And lastly when he makes his escape to the North, the movie could end on a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Mental connection to sound and music is based in familiarity. Reading Douglass’ accounts of antebellum America, including his sound imagery and description cannot provide us with a full idea of the interpreted soundscape. Incorporating songs that we are more familiar with and transposing them into the world of Douglass recreates his Narrative in a unique and powerful way.

Sounds of The Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass

The key to Fredrick Douglass’s escape and later success as an abolitionist was his ability to read. Because of how important it is, I have chosen a scene where he made “friends of all the little white boys whom [he] met on the street…[and] converted into teachers”(Douglass 23). The “bread of knowledge” would cost him bread, of which he had plenty. Going into the scene the sound will start to layer. The most distant sounds, that of the shipyard, will start at a normal volume. As the scene continues it gets quieter and more distant only to be replaced with the street sounds of Baltimore. That too will fade though slightly less, leaving the relevant sounds of the boys as the loudest.

The soft whistling of the wind between the masts forcing the sails to billow and flap and the flags to snap in the near by Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard. The soft constant slap of the waves against the hulls of the ships blends with the irregular creaking of the wooden docks as it is stepped on. The squawk of seagulls clashes with the curses of the dockworkers that are raised to be heard over the thud of crates. The sound that draws the most attention however is the crack of a whip followed but the smack of it connecting to the skin of slaves. Their cries of pain sound out afterwards.

The more immediate sounds are those of the streets of Baltimore. The horses’ shod hooves clop on the cobblestone. The carts they pull rattle at every divot in the road. The horses whinny. The people’s voices vary, male and female. Each distinct yet muffled.

The most dominant voices are those of adolescent boys. They are infused with challenge and the carefreeness of youth. One challenges the other “‘I don’t believe you. Let me see you try.’” (Douglass 26) This is followed by the scratch of chalk on a nearby brick wall as Douglass does so. The boy who is watching is busy with a loaf of bread, the crunch of the crust as it is ripped in pieces before being shoved into his mouth. It acts as a muffler and impedes the speech of the boy as he proves to Douglass the expanse of his knowledge.

In seeking to escape slavery Douglass seeks to escape the fate of his grandmother, lonely and forgotten. To emphasize the desolation of his grandmother’s cabin, the only sound would be silence. In a long camera shot of a hut surrounded by woods, the sound of silence would be broken only by the stray chirp of a cicada, the rustle of leaves in the wind, and “by day the moans of a dove and by night the screams of the hideous owl” (Douglass 29). The camera would then zoom in on the door. As it approaches the door it would emit a creek as it swings open. Inside the cabin the silence prevails except for the crackle of a dying fire and the slow rasp of the grandmother’s breath. The shot pans to the rustle of rough cloth against the dry, calloused skin of the old woman. As the viewers watch the woman gives a raspy cough and lets out a last rattling breath.

Soundscape: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Soundscape

When contemplating how to write a soundscape for the autobiographical “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, the first challenge is to decide what style of film this particular soundscape would best fit. Since Douglass tells a story that contains much hardship, I feel the most fitting style would be an epic drama accentuating the struggle Douglass experiences below the Mason-Dixon line. This film would culminate with a triumphant, free Douglass acting as a key player in the abolitionist movement. However, the focus of the film, like the focus of this commentary, would be Douglass’ experiences with slavery and specific memories he has that arouse trauma, fury and vexation.

Early on in the film, a scene begins by panning the Great House Farm ending with a shot of the newest overseer, Mr. Gore. In the background are sounds of cotton bushes being picked and worked, soil being turned with the occasional, quiet thud of a hoe and various voices, mostly those of overseers, cursing at slaves. Mr. Gore does not speak, for he “dealt sparingly in words” (Douglass 13), while he rides his horse—slowly trotting along with a repetitive clopping of hoofs—until he eventually stops at one particular slave named Demby. As Mr. Gore dismounts his horse, the stomp created by his boots hitting the ground is amplified to show the importance of the action and also to represent the fear in Demby’s mind once he realizes the steady rhythm of his work had not been enough to repel Mr. Gore’s attention. After ordering him to stop working and remove his shirt with a frank, biting voice that embodies his control and power, Mr. Gore begins to whip Demby with quick, electric lashes. Soon after, Demby runs into a stream, standing “at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out.” (Douglass 14). The area surrounding the scene goes silent as slaves stop momentarily to witness the conflict. Mr. Gore gives three carefree calls to Demby telling him to return from the stream, or he would be shot. Demby remains, and with one loud clap, Demby drops into the stream dead. Soon after the “thrill of horror” (Douglass 14) experienced by the slaves ends, there is silence and awe as Gore remains “cool and collected” (Douglass 14). The scene ends as Mr. Gore nonchalantly remounts his horse, and the repetitive clopping of hoofs continues signifying a return to normalcy after the horrific event.

Later in the film, once Douglass has become of age to labor as a slave, he is sent to work on the farm of Mr. Edward Covey. Douglass is routinely whipped by Covey in the early months of his work and is often cursed at. A new scene begins with Douglass working in a hayloft before sunrise, the noises of him laboring while heaving the hay down from atop, the rustle of the hay as it is moved across the barn and the quiet neighing of the horses eager for their morning feed emits tranquility. The horses are unaware that a slave is feeding them; they are just interested in getting the food. Their innocent neighing creates a stark contrast to large Mr. Covey bumbling into the barn with slothful, obvious footsteps. Quickly Covey catches a hold of Douglass and throws him to the ground “sprawling” (Douglass 42). The harmony created by the early morning barnyard scene is quickly erased by the savage physical struggle that commences. As Douglass “seizes” Covey, the once aggressive man begins to “tremble like a leaf” (Douglass 42). Douglass then kicks Hughes, a man who comes to Covey’s assistance, directly in the stomach and Hughes drops to his knees clutching his stomach while gasping for air and making audible heaves similar to that of someone asphyxiating. The two halt the fight later as Covey lets Frederick go while “puffing and blowing at a great rate” (Douglass 43). Douglass’ silence and lack of bloodshed contrast sharply to Covey’s emphatic gasps for breath and bloodied shirt. While Covey acts as if he remains the master, the retreat of the white man shows his clear defeat. The next few scenes in the movie show subsequent interactions between Covey and Douglass, with Douglass narrating that Edward Covey never beat him again. Covey would then speak up and say “he didn’t want to get a hold of [Douglass] again”, to which Douglass acknowledges with an agreeing look, but Frederick the narrator confidently, and with a new found sense of maturity, speaks his opinion: “you need not, for you will come out worse than before.” (Douglass 43)

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.

Silence in Douglass’ Audible Narrative

Both the South and the North can be defined as noisy atmospheres in Antebellum America.  Frederick Douglass details, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, how the sharp cracks of the whip, shrieks of pain by the slaves to demonstrate their humanity, and strings of profane words of slave-owners define the racket of the South in the mid-1800s.  Douglass indentifies the North as carrying on “noiselessly so” compared with the types of sounds he hears in the South, but to many Southerners “Northern cities were distinctly noisy places filled with the cacophony of the mob and the unpalatable cadence of industrialism” (Smith 152).  The South described by Douglass has its own unique soundscape characterized by the “keynote” sounds that make up the everyday activities of slaves and their masters.  However, it is the silences in the soundscape that transform noises into a narrative soundtrack of the life of a slave.  To demonstrate the importance of silence in defining the narrative of a place, I will explain the use of silence in three potential songs on my imagined soundtrack of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

The opening expression on my Frederick Douglass soundtrack features the repetitive, everyday sounds of slavery as Douglass learns how to behave as a slave.  This track contains the constant, sharp slash of a whip cutting against human flesh overlaid by the allegro, profane shouts of the slave master recurring as eighth notes.  The song is conspicuously missing the lazy drone of maternal love, and instead full of a cacophony of the swish of harvesting tobacco or wheat, the blaring of the driver’s horn, and the occasional gunshot blending into the other sounds.  However, the profane shouts build in intensity and become fortissimo, but are offset by rests.  The masters shout and then there is a sudden absence of sound, as if a response is expected.  The slave-owners, though, do not expect a response because the slaves must “know nothing” and “the means of knowing [must be] withheld”(Douglass 1).  This first stage of silence is characterized by submission because when a slave-owner speaks, a slave “must stand, tremble, and listen” without questioning (Douglass 10).  Silence could not prevent the undeserved punishments that the slaves received, but slave-owners expected submission, and this type of silence characterized Douglass as he learned the dehumanizing meaning of slavery.

Track two is characterized by the deceptive silence of a lie.  It is composed of the “wild songs” of the slaves that revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” (Douglass 8).  Because the “penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions” was possibly death, silencing the truth became a wise, conscious decision to ensure survival (Douglass 11).  The lyrical messages of the slaves often contrasted the tonal meaning of the songs because the slaves were forced to express their laments in a pursuit of self-preservation.  In this second title, silence becomes important because the lyrical truth of the slaves’ songs is silenced by fear and the need for self-protection.

The final movement of my soundtrack with the motif of silence becomes less chaotic and more measured.  The sounds become more poignant and intentional as Douglass grows more educated and begins to defend himself.  Amidst the ordered sounds of mallets and irons and the pianissimo tinkling sounds of colliding coins, the sounds occasionally fade out before quietly coming back into earshot.  These intentional, calm, and purposeful silences indicate Douglass’ defiance as he “did not allow [himself] a single word; but was resolved, if [Master Hugh] laid his hand upon me, it should be blow for blow”(Douglass 62).   Intentional silence gives Douglass an aura of calculated intelligence and determination that characterized is path to freedom.

Although our lives, and the lives of people of Antebellum America, are defined by the sounds we hear, silence plays a roll in creating history because it allows narratives to be told.  Silence was key to the survival of the slave and Douglass’ evolving use of silence ultimately led to his freedom.  However, silence also played a key roll in the physical narration of Douglass’ own life because his decision to omit the details surrounding his escape to freedom left a large hole in his narrative.  This hole was left for the reader to fill with his or her imagination, but ultimately remained a silent absence of knowledge.  The affect of this is similar to the fractured style of Emily Bernard in her essay “Teaching the N-Word,” and gives the reader the power to fill the gaps of information with her own knowledge to better connect with the work.  In the end, silence can contain as much meaning as sound and may serve to connect the reader to the text to better drive the narrative.

Works Cited 

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

Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2003. Print.

Frederick Douglass Assignment

The contrast between the North and South in antebellum America is so undeniably huge that it is almost impossible to imagine them as parts of the same country. As Mark Smith stated in his “Listening to the Heard World of Antebellum America”, “The quiet of the plantation acted as a counterpoint to the noise of urbanism and industrialism” (143). The South was associated with the silence and peacefulness of the farm, while the North reflected the progress of Industrialization and all the discord that came with it. However, Frederick Douglass shows in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that this may not be the case to every ear. If the noises he heard were to be made into a soundtrack or put into a docudrama, they would be as follows.

While on the plantation in Easton, Maryland, the sounds of slavery and suffering constantly surround Frederick. First and foremost is that of labor. Throughout the entire day, there would be the light swish of the scythe cutting through the wheat, followed by the gentle drum of its fall. The next sound is the low melody of the slaves’ songs. The rumble of voices, soft but noticeable, saturated with the hurt and hopelessness of their owners’ situation permeates the heavy air in a constant hum. “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject” (Douglass 8). This desperation would be ever-present. Behind these quiet words and chants is a much louder shriek of pain and a cry for reprieve from such excruciating suffering; however, never are they heard in their true form. Next, over the voices is the intermediate crack of a whip. A white man overseeing the workers reminds them frequently of his presence with the sharp sound of leather snapping back on itself. Douglass describes one overseer: “His presence was painful; his eye flashed confusion; and seldom was his sharp, shrill voice heard, without producing horror and trembling to the ranks” (Douglass 13). These sounds carry to the ears of the slaves, causing the loudest sound of all to fill their minds. This is the sound of fear.

This is what Frederick Douglass lived with every day working on the field. When he arrives at New Bedford, Massachusetts, he hears a very different soundscape. “Almost every body seemed at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore” (Douglass 67). To the ear of a slave, the wharf is almost silent. There is no overarching tone of servitude and humiliation, only the thrum of comfortable labor. To Frederick, these were the sounds of contentment and freedom. No desperate song comes from the mouths of slave men and women, but silence from free human beings. “Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man” (Douglass 67). Everyone served only themselves, not the employer of the brusque men with their crackling, eager lashes. Instead of a soundscape based on pain and harm, it is the gentle scraping, creaking, and hammering of wholehearted work; the undertones of fury and hatred caused by the institution of slavery are not present. Frederick no longer sensed the utter roar of destitution and agony that was constant in the South, but instead only the gentle thrum of free men. The tones are strange and low to him; never before has he witnessed such a place.

To an escaped slave, the haven of the North is the depiction of peace and refuge, while over a hundred years later a white man makes a case for the same to be said of the slaveholding South. Regardless of this inconsistency, Frederick Douglass illustrates the contrast between his perception of the soundscapes of North and South in his autobiography, leaving a very clear picture of what he believed to be the heard worlds of antebellum America.


Works Cited

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

Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2003. 137-63. Print.

Douglass: An EPIC Historical Epic Drama

From birth into slavery as an innocent child to enlistment in the abolitionist movement as a freethinking, established young man, Frederick Douglass’ life experience was far from uniform. His tumultuous childhood and adolescence left him in a perpetual state of transition between masters of varying levels of cruelty; adulthood went on to reveal evils so great as to strip away his desire for freedom and intellectual enlightenment, while also eventually exposing that such desires were necessary and vital to his living. Despite the frequent and considerable variance in his circumstances, Douglass’ character can be defined by certain underlying themes in his personality: courage, righteousness, and confidence. In constructing the soundtrack for a historical epic drama based on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one set of tonal frequencies would be selected to support these themes, and contrasted with another set reflecting the dark, forlorn, and desperate times Douglass was subjected to. Each set would be broken into two primary categories: keynote sounds and musical selections.

Keynote sounds are those that “are overheard but cannot be overlooked;”[1] they give auditory identity to a given location, collaboratively forming a unique soundmark. Thus, divergent soundmarks would have great purpose in establishing an audial perception of the changes in setting throughout the film. The keynote sounds of a plantation would be significantly different from those of a city like Baltimore. Douglass was often “awakened at the dawn of the day by the most heart-rending shrieks of [his own aunt];”[2] he refers to the experience as horrifying and unforgettable, but acknowledges that it became somewhat of a normative occurrence. Over time, in combination with the whipping of other slaves and the procession of various plantation activities, Douglass became desensitized: the shrill screaming, the fiery crack of the whip, the harsh yelling and cursing, the woeful singing, the obediently stifled whimpering—these sounds became the auditory backdrop of daily life. In the city, Douglass was exposed to an entirely different soundscape. The streets bustled with the sounds of clacking shoes and noisy banter; the airspace in the shipyard was ever consumed by shouted orders and violent threats; relative quiet and stillness existed within the Auld household, until punishment was being given. Upon escaping the bounds of slavery and joining forces with the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass was exposed to yet another set of keynote sounds—this time in New Bedford, Massachusetts. These ranged from the well-mannered voices of his peers to the soothing, calm tones of his home living with Anna Murray. By contrasting these three sets of keynote sounds, the differences between plantation, city, and suburban life would be dramatized, as well as the disparity between enslavement and tentative freedom. Specifically, the sorrowful, harsh, and jarring tones of plantation and city life would be alleviated by the softer, kinder, and more comfortable sounds of suburban life, mirroring Douglass’ transition from confinement to liberation.

Musical selections would be used to reinforce a negative emotional reaction to the immorality of slavery, and the opposite regarding emancipation. The portrayal of Douglass upon realizing that “Mr. Covey had succeeded in breaking [him],”[3] and that “[his] natural elasticity was crushed, [his] intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about his eye [dead]; the dark night of slavery closed in upon him”[4] would be supplemented by the song It’s All Understood, by Jack Johnson. The composition utilizes a minor key, slow and lackluster tempo, and a melancholy beat; these factors naturally foster a sense of sadness and solemnity, and would effectively give rise to emotional discomfort when combined with the imagery of a defeated Douglass. In another scene, with people cheering and showing support for Douglass after a speech, the musical selection Rox in the Box, by The Decemberists, would lend an overall joyful and celebratory vibe with its upbeat tempo and pleasant swing beat. In combination with the visual image of such a liberated and optimistic man, the scene would encourage an emotional state of contentment and the sensation of happiness. All musical selections in the film would be from recent years, in order to make its historical setting more relatable to a modern audience; familiarity with the music would enhance the connection between viewer life experience and on-screen content. The holistic effect of music within such a historical epic drama would be to strengthen the audience’s emotional response, and additionally contrast the exceptional and the abysmal in the life of Frederick Douglass.

[1] Jonathan Sterne, The Sound Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2012), Chapter 10.

[2] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Massachusetts: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1845), Chapter 1.

[3] Ibid., Chapter 10.

[4] Ibid., Chapter 10.


Adam Sullivan Douglass Soundscape

While written descriptions and visual representations of antebellum America are numerous, the only auditory perspective available in the twenty-first century is secondhand, at best. Our notion of what America in the 1800s may have sounded like comes only from textual evidence and a knowledge of the types of activities which would have been present. Still, it is possible to construct what is most likely an accurate soundscape.
Were I to design a soundtrack for a film about the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I would focus on the key aspects of sound which are crucial for certain scenes. Take, for example, the scene in which a young Douglass witnesses the whipping of his Aunt Hester. Because it takes place indoors, this moment would have very little background noise, except maybe the occasional muffled and unrelated voices from outside. Rather than background sounds, this scene would revolve around four main sonic points: Aunt Hester’s voice, Colonel Lloyd’s voice, the whip, and Douglass’ silence. Colonel Lloyd says the only words in the scene. He orders Aunt Hester to cross her hands and climb onto a stool. He calls her a “d—-d b—-h,” and tells her, “I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” (Douglass 4). The angry, punitive tone of his voice is impossible to miss. During these lines, one would hear Aunt Hester quietly stepping onto the stool, and the clink of metal as Colonel Lloyd ties her hands to the hook. There would be a brief moment of hushed anticipation, as Lloyd rolls up his sleeves. Then, the audience would be struck with a barrage of sounds. Starting with the initial, piercing crack of the whip, the room fills with “heard-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him” (5). However, Douglass then hides himself in the closet. Because the scene is told from his perspective, the sounds would change. The screams, whips, and yelling would become muffled, replaced by the quick, shallow breaths of a young boy in bondage who has just been introduced to the brute cruelty of his world.
I would also juxtapose two of the ship-yard scenes from the book, one in Baltimore and one in New Bedford. Douglass had a job at both these ship-yards, and he describes the sounds of both. For the scene in Baltimore, I would focus on the voices of Douglass’ fellow workers calling him from all sides to help. The scene would be filled with shouts of, “Come here! — Go there! — Hold on where you are! Damn you, if you move, I’ll knock your brains out!” (56). The frantic atmosphere would build as countless voices yell at Douglass. The culminating point of the scene would be his fight with the workers. As the air fills with voices, the occasional sound of a fist hitting Douglass would come through, followed by Douglass’ immediate retaliation. Finally, as the fight grows, the sounds would become indiscernible shouting and hitting as the workmen cry, “Kill the damned nigger!” (57). These sounds would slowly fade as Douglass escapes and runs back to the Hugh household.
The Baltimore scene would parallel the scene in which Douglass begins working as a calker on the wharves of New Bedford. The quiet, individual work in the North provides a stark contrast to the loud, forced group labor of the South. Douglass notes, “Almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses from the laborer” (67). To amplify this comparison, I would fill the New Bedford scene with the sounds of the ships creaking in the tide and pedestrians talking on the land. There would be no shouts from a master, no crack of the whip, no hostile words between workers. Rather, this scene would exemplify the industrious and individualized work environment to be found in New Bedford. The distant sound of machinery and crowds would remind the audience that Douglass is no longer in the world of slavery, but that, instead, he has reached the land of progress, industrialism, and freedom.