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”