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)

3 thoughts on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Soundscape

  1. I also want to talk about your scene with Mr. Gore and Demby. In other readings and discussions in this class, we’ve explored the subjectivity vs objectivity of sound. I like that prior to the whipping, the clopping of the horses hooves could be ominous, but the same sound after is an unfortunate reminder that this is not seen as a big deal in the eyes of Mr. Gore or other white southerners. I also liked that the sound of the boots would be amplified; I imagined it not just slightly amplified, but amplified in an over the top manner, to show that something so unimportant to the viewer holds such meaning to a frightened and tortured slave. This really emphasizes how subjective the sounds are, and how little the modern day viewer can actually, truly relate to the plight of the slaves.

  2. I found your inclusion of the “innocent neighing” of the horse in contrast to the heaviness of the rest of the later scene to be very interesting. It reminded me of an earlier scene in the narrative on page 10 when Douglass describes the differences between the treatment of Colonel Lloyd’s horses and the slaves that tend to the horses. The contrast created by the innocent noise of the animals and the undeserving, innocent cries of the slaves as they are whipped could create an interesting tension to demonstrate the inhumanity of slavery. Was your inclusion of animals in both scenes an intentional contrast between the treatment of horses and slaves?

  3. I really like your interpretation of the scene with Mr. Gore and Demby. The amplification of Mr. Gore’s boots as he dismounts is a nice juxtaposition to rhythmic sounds of work in the field. After Mr. Gore concludes his horrific deed, he just gets right back on his horse and trots away. You have some really clear sounds that can provoke an emotional response from any audience.

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