Sounds of Nature
Presumably, natural sounds like rain, thunder, and earthquakes made the same noises in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that they do now. Commodore James Barron's 1749 description of a hurricane sounds familiar: "The wind increased which soon brought the rain. As the hours wore on the wind and rain increased in fury. Sometimes the downpour slackened. One could hear the sand picked up by the wind from the beach outside and blasted against every object that still withstood the gale." But wind and rain felt radically different to those who lived in a world before car alarms, amplified music, and jackhammers. Well into the eighteenth century, educated Western people believed that thunder and lightning came from the Christian God's wrath and that the damage came not from the fiery lightning but from the noise of thunder. Churchgoers would have heard the Old Testament book of Job teaching that, "God thunders wondrously with his voice," and so the sudden clap of lightning might bring not only wind and rain but also moral trepidation.
An 1843 letter to the editor in the Daily National Intelligencer of Fauquier County describes the cicada sounds that may have been heard in Jefferson's years at Monticello, explaining that, "In two or three days, if the weather is warm, they commence singing, at first low and feebly; but in about a week the singing becomes loud and incessant, from a little after daybreak until near night. They also sing at intervals through the night when it is warm. When the weather is cool they are scarcely heard day or night. When a large number are singing together they can be heard nearly a mile." The author vividly describes the sounds: Their note may be represented thus: "whir-irrh, oh," or thus, "cho-o-oke," like one calling hogs at a distance, the voice being prolonged and elevated at the first syllable, and short and low at the last. These notes they repeat at intervals of a few seconds. When a large number are heard singing at a little distance, the first notes only are distinguished, and there is then an incessant "whirrh;" the concluding note is only heard when near. The body is stretched out in sounding the first note, and relaxed again in sounding the second. There is a strong cord-like muscle reaching from the sternum to the back, to which the tambouret is attached, and it is, no doubt, by the rapid contractions of this muscle that the membrane is made to vibrate.
Not only did natural sounds like cicadas permeate the lives of early Americans, they also caused speculation about their cause and potential meaning.
Bells as Instrumental Sound
Jefferson's world resounded with sounds made not only by nature, but also by humans with nonhuman objects such as guns, wagon wheels, printing presses, axes, and whips. These sounds would have been so commonplace that few would record their occurrence in writing. Bells of various kinds, however, entered the historical record more regularly because of their many practical uses. For example, in 1818 James Clarke of Powhatan received the first U.S. patent for an odometer that marked distance by chiming like a bell every ten miles. Jefferson's slaves knew their master was coming when they heard this type of odometer bell on his wagon.
Western Classical Music
Jefferson's diplomatic appointment to Paris in 1784 allowed travel to various European cities, where he attended concerts, collected sheet music, and purchased musical instruments. In the parlors of the gentry, such as Jefferson, men and women played chamber music from scores commonly purchased in Europe, Philadelphia, or New York. Wealthy American women played keyboard and guitar instruments, often singing art songs culled from songbooks or operas.
Like other aristocratic homes in Jefferson's time, however, most of the music-making inside Monticello happened at the hands of Jefferson's wife, daughters, and granddaughters. Tellingly, Jefferson's music collection contains one of only four extant documents in his wife's hand, a musical commonplace book in which Martha Wayles Jefferson meticulously copied pieces for solo keyboard and voice, technical exercises, scales, and preludes in all the major and minor keys. Jefferson prescribed three hours a day of musical practice for his daughters and granddaughters. He instructed them to practice music as part of a larger educational plan. He also prescribed practice in part to resist idleness and indolence, both of which he imagined as very dangerous for young women.
Political Songsters and Jefferson's Scrapbooks
Jefferson's music collections also included scrapbooked political material, much like popular songsters. In Jefferson's time, a songster was a small book of song lyrics. (The term "songster" later came to mean a post-Reconstruction-era black musician who performed ballads and dance tunes with banjo or guitar accompaniment.) Designed to be convenient and portable, songsters had as few as eight and as many as several hundred pages. Early Americans exported this eighteenth-century print practice from Great Britain to publishing centers in the United States including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore, where it gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century.
Songsters featured lyrics to songs rather than musical notes, and occasionally a songster's editor would suggest a familiar tune for the new lyrics. Contrafacta, or the practice of reusing melodies for different lyrics, was a popular and practical way to create new songs from familiar tunes.
During the years of his presidency (1801–1809), Jefferson kept scrapbooks that methodically represented public events filled with sound and song. In a four-volume set of brown, hardbound books, Jefferson compiled hundreds of newspaper articles that are pasted onto recycled pages, both printed and handwritten, featuring odes, political articles, travelogues, stories, toasts, celebrations, and anniversaries. In the fourth and final volume, Jefferson gathered many newsprint clippings of songs. Like songsters, the clippings do not include musical notation but instead feature song lyrics, some of which recommend a tune. Several tunes, including "To Anacreon in Heaven," "Yankee Doodle," "Heart of Oak," and "Rule Britannia," appear more than once in Jefferson's song clippings, suggesting the popularity of these melodies.
Printed song lyrics appeared frequently in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America—in newspapers and in songsters—but scholars disagree about whether the songs were actually sung and performed. Jefferson's scrapbook, however, offers rich documentation of the date and occasion of such song performances. Some even give the name of the performers who sang the songs. For example, one clipping records exact details about the performance of new lyrics for "To Anacreon in Heaven" (a popular drinking song, the melody of which would later be used for the "Star Spangled Banner): "THE following SONG, sung on the 4th of MARCH, at an entertainment given by the American Consul at the Hotel, London, has merit which entitles it to high rank among our popular airs."
Many of Jefferson's scrapbook songs pertain to politics and nationhood; several even name Jefferson himself. Patriotic songs like these formed a familiar part of the early Virginia soundscape; they afforded participants a sense of community and identity in the early years of the republic. Jefferson's patriotic songs remind us that Americans used European cultural materials in the service of American patriotism. At the same time, the songs illustrate the vitality of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aural culture in Virginia and across the United States.
Sounds of the Enslaved
Outside of Jefferson's library, the enslaved men and women at Jefferson's Monticello likely had a rich sonic culture, although it would not have been recognized as such at the time. As the historian Jon Cruz explains in Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation (1999), "Prior to the mid-nineteenth century black music appears to have been heard by captors and overseers primarily as noise—that is, as strange, unfathomable, and incomprehensible. However, with the rise of the abolitionist movement, black song making became considered increasingly as a font of black meanings." Before the publication of Frederick Douglass's Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881) when mainstream American readers might have first heard of slave songs, the music of African Americans did not register as a creative or skilled activity. Spirituals did not even register to whites as music, if they were acknowledged at all, and skills like fiddling were only regarded as increasing the market value of a slave.
In stark contrast to his extensive collections and writings about European and even American music, Jefferson wrote about the sounds of the enslaved only twice in all of his works. He never described work songs, spirituals, or dances, despite spending hours monitoring his enslaved workers. Jefferson kept the "noise" of the slaves outside of both his records and his house. He built Monticello on a hill, with the slave quarters below on what became known as Mulberry Row. In "Duality and Invisibility: Race and Memory in the Urbanism of the American South," an article published in 2001, the scholar Craig Barton argues that the views from Monticello's east portico "actively deny the presence of the black body. Through the manipulation of the landscape section and placement of the volume of the winged dependencies, Jefferson skillfully rendered invisible the slaves and their place of work from the important symbolic view of the property." He installed plate glass windows, which in addition to blocking rain and cold also cancelled the sounds of corn-shucking songs, which we know his daughters learned from the enslaved women who raised them.
In Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky (1863), Francis Fedric, a Virginia-born former slave, described corn-shucking songs: "Some of the masters make their slaves shuck the corn. All the slaves stand on one side of the heap, and throw the ears over, which are then cribbed. This is the time when the whole country far and wide resounds with the corn-songs." Fedric explained that singing enlivened their labor and brought them "spirit, humour, and mirth," but he cleverly imbedded his narrative with clues to these songs' practical use. "Fare you well, fare you well," Fedric says they sang, "Fare you well, I'm going away … I'm going away to Canada." Although Fedric does not comment on the lyrics, slave songs were often used to organize, coordinate, and communicate escapes within plain sight, and earshot, of white captors.
George Tucker, a Virginia congressman and Jefferson-appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, presented a vivid description of these same corn songs in his novel The Valley of Shenandoah (1824). Set on a Virginia plantation in 1796, the novel explains, "The corn songs of these humble creatures would please you still more; for some of them have a small smack of poetry, and are natural at expressions of kind and amiable feelings—such as praise of their master … there are thousands amongst us who never attended a corn-shocking, or even heard a corn song—so entirely separated are the two classes of black and white, and so little curiosity does that excite." Tucker censured the tendency of white slaveholders such as Jefferson to remain deaf to their sounds, although he ultimately believed that slavery should remain a legal social institution.
Another son, Eston Hemings, also worked as a musician, both during his days at Monticello and later, while living as a free man in Ohio. In 1902, a correspondent for the Scioto Gazette, in Chillicothe, Ohio, reported, "Eston Hemings, being a master of the violin, and an accomplished 'caller' of dances, always officiated at the 'swell' entertainments of Chillicothe; and they were more frequent then than now."
Evidence suggests that Jefferson's Virginia was filled with complex and varied sounds, including the sounds of nature, the ringing of bells, the playing of instruments by the Jefferson women in the mansion, and the singing of slave songs on Mulberry Row and in the fields. Jefferson's own "passion" for music added to the textured sounds at one of America's most famous plantations, suggesting that sound often did cultural and emotional work even when overlooked as noise.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Gale, E., & Gordon, B. Sound in Jefferson's Virginia. (2016, October 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Sound_in_Jefferson_s_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Gale, Emily and Bonnie Gordon. "Sound in Jefferson's Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 25 Oct. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 21, 2014 | Last modified: October 25, 2016
Contributed by Emily Gale and Bonnie Gordon. Emily Gale is Lecturer of Music in the Global Arts Studies program at the University of California, Merced, with a PhD in music from the University of Virginia. Bonnie Gordon is Associate Professor of Music, Director of Graduate Studies, and coordinator of the Arts Mentors program at the University of Virginia.