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.

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.

Soundtrack of Knowledge

A Synopsis of Chapters VI and VII of The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass


The scene opens in a townhouse in Baltimore. The ambient noises of daily life outside are occasionally heard softly. Mrs. Auld is sitting in an armchair reciting the alphabet in a gentle and encouraging voice. Frederick Douglass, as a young black boy, relays each letter back, his voice shakily forming around the shape of the letter. The viewpoint fades to a newspaper on a table. As a delicate white finger points to a four-letter word, his voice is heard sounding out each letter until his mouth and mind recognize the word and repeat it two or three times. Anytime Douglass’ southern drawl causes his tongue to lay too heavily on a vowel, or drop a consonant, Mrs. Auld repeats the word, putting emphasis on the part that was mistaken. This process repeats itself over and over. Peyn was corrected with pen; wuz replaced with was; and brang became bring, and the g never dropped. It cuts to Mrs. Auld once again sitting in her armchair with Frederick Douglass standing opposite of her. She is saying short words and he is spelling them back to her. The three-letter words are quick and easy while the four-letter words, especially those with vowel combinations, are spoken with more hesitation between each sound. Suddenly, while Douglass is halfway through the word work, Mr. Auld bursts into the room.

“Silence, boy!” he shouts, his voice loud and demanding. He turns to his wife, lowering his voice, yet accentuating his words with a furious hiss. His consonants are sharp against the silence. “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master.” The intensity in his voice reveals the truth in what he is saying. Mr. Auld takes a deep breath, calming his voice to appeal to his wife’s delicate side while remaining firm. “As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” Mr. Auld walks out briskly with the soft thump of his boots on the carpet. There is a moment of utter silence as Mrs. Auld stares at the eager, young black boy. Then, with a quick exhale, she hurries out as well with only the whisper of her skirts rubbing together.

As the scene slowly zooms onto young Douglass, his rich older voice is heard as narration. Behind his voice, music characterized mainly by string instruments begins to build. “These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled. I now understand what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty: the white man’s power to enslave the black man. From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” There is a moment of violins held in a suspended note as the power of Douglass’s words sink in. The viewpoint is now close on young Douglass’s face with determination in his eyes and a slight smile. “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”

The scene is black and quiet for a moment, until young Douglass bursts out of the front door and is bombarded with the harmonious cacophony of city life. Children are seen and heard laughing and playing in the streets. Hurried white businessmen brush past, often followed by a slave carrying briefcases and baggage. The shouts of orders to men loading and unloading at the ship yard filled the air with the occasional swear or lash of the whip signifying mistake. Beneath it all, the low hum of mechanized life can be heard. However the music powers through the noise, expressing the hustle and bustle of life in the city.

The music continues with playful interjections of trumpets and percussion, yet above all else the sounds of Douglass acquiring knowledge are heard: the letters, sounds and words spoken from poor boys’ lips as white fingers trace through dirt in the street; the workers in the shipyard yelling “Larboard aft!” while marking a great plank with a giant “L.A.” while Douglass looks on, copying the letters by scratching into drift wood; and the scrape of chalk on brick walls and sidewalks writing and rewriting letter after letter. The music and sounds of street life fade out as the scene changes to Douglass sitting in an empty and dark house writing in young Master Thomas’s copy-book. All that is heard is the sound of a pencil on stolen paper. As the last word on the last page is finished, Douglass smiles, admiring how his smooth and practiced writing compares to that of Master Thomas, and closes the book. The scene goes black and silent.

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”

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.