Frederick Douglass Soundscape

Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” describes the world of slavery through the eyes of a man who managed to escape his chains and become a part of the movement against slavery. Turning his narrative into a film, however, will require a detailed soundscape to augment the visuals. Taking from Douglass’s recollections, a soundscape can be constructed to view antebellum America through the eyes of a slave. This soundscape must convey the powerful characteristics of singing, pain, and the silence of free labor, all as Douglass portrays them in his work.

The opening of the film will take place when Douglass was younger and still living on the plantation. The first frames of the film will focus on swaying crops, with no evidence of the plantation itself. Sounds of the crops swaying in a gentile breeze will give a sense of calm. Sounds of the slaves in the fields, working and singing solemnly will fade in, followed visually by a scythe cutting through the crop. The singing, although completely new to the viewer, should embody the collective sadness of the slaves and stir emotion. Douglass’s recollection of his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” (Douglass, 8) should be evident in the singing, through the use of slow and labored tempo, of single voices to emulate loneliness, and of clear pain in the voices. The singing continues as shots of the plantation are showed, eventually focusing on the character Douglass as a child.

As we continue to follow him, the muffled sound of whip cracks and an overseer shouting slowly fade in, almost beyond the awareness of the viewer. As Douglass enters a kitchen, the painful sounds of his aunt being whipped are brought out from the filter and become obvious, to a painful extent for the viewer.  The earlier, peaceful sounds of the plantation fade behind this filter, focusing attention to the sounds of the whip, ”horrid oaths” from the overseer, and the shrieking aunt present the scene which Douglass calls “a horrible exhibition” (Douglass, 4). As the sounds of the “bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation” (Douglass, 5) sink in, we hear Douglass as narrator enter with “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). Though this, Douglass can describe the pains of slavery.

Now later in Douglass’s life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the camera displays the wharf, while the soundscape is rich with that typical of the setting: there is the constant sound of seagulls and people working and talking, and of the water as it splashes against the sides of the ships and the wharf. As the camera focuses on Douglass, new to the whole setting, the sounds of the wharf and the laborers become quieter, augmenting Douglass’s narration of “Almost every body seemed at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore” (Douglass 67). To Douglass, the lack of servitude and painful submission in these laborers makes their work comfortable and silent, without the sounds of desperation and anguish. As Douglass states, “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). Quieting the surrounding environment that Douglass finds himself in allows the viewer to experience the confusion of free sounds as Douglass did, lessening the world around him.

To accurately describe a work filled with painful and inspiring images through sound, one must recreate the emotions originally felt by the author. In doing this with Frederick Douglass, we construct a soundscape terrifying with its pain, sadness and cruelty, but uplifting with hope. The overwhelmingly negative sounds, from the whips to the solemn singing, lead way to a found silence in freedom, and from here we can see Douglass’s ability to shape a lighter path ahead.



Works Cited

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






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”