Sound in Jefferson’s Virginia


Sound in Thomas Jefferson‘s Virginia included natural, man-made, and melodic noises. The areas surrounding Monticello, the Albemarle County estate of Jefferson, and the city of Charlottesville, reverberated with thunder, cicadas, bells, work songs, fiddles, and drums. Nearby taverns, parlors, dances, and political rallies resonated with the sounds of crowd noises, toasts, songs, military salutes, fireworks, and shouts. Jefferson’s world was as noisy as any small town of its time, filled with the sounds of nature (especially cicadas), Western art music, political music, and the sounds of the enslaved. In taverns, patrons sang drinking songs and patriotic tunes. In parlors, young women performed with keyboards and lutes. At dances, men played fiddles, and in the military, they participated in fife and drum corps. In slave quarters, enslaved men and women, though regularly ignored, sang spirituals and played fiddles and drums, sometimes to communicate with one another.

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.

Annual Cicada

As strong an impact as thunderstorms made, seemingly nonthreatening sounds like cicadas also generated speculation and turmoil. As they do today, many cicadas appeared every summer and made a tremendous racket, their clicking sounds amplifying to between 100 and 120 decibels, approaching the volume of a stadium rock concert or an airplane. But in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Virginia, such decibels hardly ever resounded and would have seemed mysterious and mythical, akin to thunderstorms. Listeners noticed the volume and looked for natural and supernatural explanations. Farmers imagined plagues of Old Testament locusts visited upon them by divine force. Jefferson identified a special breed of these “locusts” in his scientific record keeping in 1775, correctly citing a seventeen-year lifecycle for the insects that tend to make an even louder sound (due simply to their larger numbers) than annual cicadas: “It appears,” he wrote, “that they come periodically once in 17 years. They come out of the ground from a prodigious depth.”

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.

Town Crier in Colonial Williamsburg

Bells played a particularly important role in creating community. Town criers in Williamsburg and other towns used silver bells to call people to attention, announce important events, and mark time. The area throughout which a bell’s sound projected also marked the limits of society and safety. Bells often announced enemy attacks, for instance, and anyone living out of earshot of the town bell might fall into danger. Bells further gathered communities by calling worshipers to church and citizens to meetings. Famously, in 1776, the ringing of bells in Philadelphia marked the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The fact that bells were rarely synchronized indicates that time itself was localized and dependent on the very community values they signaled. Bells also kept plantations running on schedule. Slaves rang most of those bells, and in 1949 Charles Bullock, whose father shared stories about his interactions with the former Jefferson slave Peter Fossett (or Faucett), said, “Peter Faucett, as footman, had to run to open the gate upon the arrival or departure of vehicles. There was a large bell which was rung upon the arrival or departure of ones to Monticello, whether by foot or riding.” When ordering gongs for the house, Jefferson specified that they make sounds “which might be heard all over my farm.” The bells commanded human action, and white visitors to Monticello remarked frequently on the bells that ordered domestic life.

Henry Martin

Likewise, when Jefferson built the University of Virginia, he prioritized finding an appropriate bell. On April 12, 1825, Jefferson sent his request to Boston merchant Joseph Coolidge, explaining, “We want a bell which can generally be heard at the distance of 2 miles, because this will ensure it’s being always heard in Charlottesville.” (It is unclear—but improbable—whether the bell could be heard at Monticello.) In 2012, the University of Virginia memorialized Henry Martin, a man born in slavery at Monticello, who, for up to fifty-three years, rang the bell that summoned students to the university’s classes and events. The primary source on Martin was published in 1914 as a dramatic monologue with Martin’s voice rendered in dialect. Like all such narratives, the so-called firsthand testimonial was mediated and constructed by white interlocutors, yet even with this mediation, textured meanings appear. Martin recalled that the Confederacy’s surrender at the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865) marked the only moment at which he did not ring his bell, reportedly because students vandalized it, turning it over and pouring it full of water; it froze and cracked and had to be replaced. Scholars have discussed Martin’s bell-ringing symbolically, illustrating that his job was to call students to opportunities from which he and others like him were specifically excluded. Martin supposedly said that he was “as true to that bell as to my God,” declaring his loyalty to work with an instrument that sonically marked an exclusionary space.

Western Classical Music

Monticello was also filled with European music, or what we now call western classical music. A typical aristocratic American, Jefferson modeled his musical tastes on European trends. Believing, as many of his peers did, that America did not yet have its own artistic traditions, Jefferson wrote in 1778 to Giovanni Fabbroni, an Italian naturalist and economist, that music “is the favorite passion of my soul, and fortune has cast my lot in a country where it is in a state of deplorable barbarism.” In the same letter, Jefferson requested that his friend locate for him a staff of indentured servants who would come to Monticello and serve double-duty, first as laborers (in stonecutting or winemaking, for example) and second as trained musicians. “In a country where like yours music is cultivated and practiced by every class of men,” Jefferson reasoned, “I suppose there might be found persons of those trades who could perform on the French horn, clarinet or hautboy [oboe] & bassoon, so that one might have a band of two French horns, two clarinets, & hautboys & a bassoon, without enlarging their domestic expenses.” Jefferson aimed to fill Monticello with classically trained European musicians while simultaneously staffing the grounds of his plantation.

Outside of Monticello, the first professional musician to actually move to Virginia may have been the English-born Peter Pelham, who arrived from Boston, Massachusetts, with his fourteen children in 1749. A performer and teacher, he played organ at Bruton Parish Church. In Williamsburg, where Jefferson knew him, Pelham most likely performed the works of composers such as George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Thomas Arne, William Felton, and Carlo Antonio Campioni. Still, the bulk of music-making in Virginia remained the province of amateurs who created the music they wanted to hear.

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.

Lyric Harmony Consisting of Eighteen entire new Ballads

Jefferson’s tastes probably suggest the kind of music heard by elite Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century. The songbooks, instruction manuals, sonatas, operatic arias, and folk ballads in his extensive collections reveal a cultivated musical life. His copies of fashionable Italian trio sonatas suggest his desire to emulate European cultures, and his favorite composers included Campioni, Michael Haydn, and Johann Schobert. Jefferson bound his sheet music into books, with volumes containing old editions of music from London pleasure gardens such as Thomas Arne’s opera Thomas and Sally, music for Spanish guitar and French harpsichord, and arrangements of popular Scottish ballads for various instruments. Jefferson’s collection also includes a large hardbound book inscribed “John Wayles” (Jefferson’s father-in-law) that mixes selections from popular ballad operas with drinking songs like “The Charms of a Bumper” and “Sparkling Champagne.”

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.

Maria Cosway

Although Jefferson played the violin and was reported to be a master by his nineteenth-century biographer Henry Randall, much of the violin music in his collection remained largely untouched. His granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge explained, “With regard to Mr Jefferson’s skill on the violin … Mr Randall’s idea that he became ‘one of the best violinists of his day’ is a little extreme. My grandfather would I believe have disclaimed it … we see at once that the time given to music by Mr Jefferson could never have accomplished more than a gentlemanly proficiency. No amateur violinist could hope to equal a professor. Mr Jefferson played I believe very well indeed, but not so well as to stand a comparison with many other persons, especially such as he must have met with abroad.” It is unlikely that Jefferson played after injuring his wrist in a riding accident in 1786, during the years of his epistolary romance with the married Italian/English singer and artist Maria Cosway, although he continued to purchase strings and have his bows repaired until early in the 1790s.

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.

The Patriotic Songster.

Songsters varied greatly in purpose and organization. In Virginia, booksellers printed minstrel songsters, patriotic songsters, and school songsters. Lengthy and elaborate titles described the songster’s function or aesthetic goals. For instance, Cottom and Stewart Booksellers and Stationers printed a 180-page songster in 1802 called The Alexandria Songster: or, A Complete Vocal Pocket Companion: Being a Collection of the Most Approved Modern Songs. Some publishers printed songsters with an expressly didactic function, such as Joseph Funk’s Sons The Day School Songster: A Choice Collection of Music for the Day School and the Social Circle. Together with an Explanation of the Elementary Principles of Music. Others announced patriotic goals, like Benjamin L. Bogan’s 1816 The Patriotic Songster: A Collection of the Most Approved Patriotic and Other Songs. Later in the nineteenth century, songsters like 1864’s The Rebel Songster: Containing a Choice Collection of Sentimental, Patriotic and Comic Songs were used during the Civil War by both Union and Confederate soldiers.

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.”

Invitation to Mr. F. C. Labbe's Ball

Jefferson compiled similar newsprint clippings that recorded songs performed at balls, churches, Masonic lodges, and celebrations of American independence. Most described performances that had already occurred by the time the paper went to press, such as an entry on “From the Aurora,” which was reported as “written for the Anniversary of American Independence, and sung at the last celebration, by a society of the friends of the People in Philadelphia.” Another patriotic song clipping explained, “The following song was sung at Portsmouth, N.H., at the late celebration of American Independence, and repeated with enthusiasm.”

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.

An Overseer Doing His Duty near Fredericksburg

Musicianship of the enslaved was at once an instrument of white sovereignty and a source of resistance: a practice that made the work go faster and that allowed for some independence of expression. Douglass wrote in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) that the songs of slaves “told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.” Douglass explained how slave music was misunderstood (both sonically and lyrically), and also highlighted how song was used as an instrument of control by masters. “Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work,” he wrote in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), explaining, “A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. ‘Make a noise,’ ‘make a noise,’ and ‘bear a hand’ are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them.” Douglass’s description shows how slaves were not only forced to work but also required to perform a false contentedness through making music.

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.

The Old Plantation

The enslaved men and women at Monticello played musical instruments in addition to singing. Much of what we know about slaves who played the fiddle in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries comes from advertisements for runaways in publications such as the Virginia Gazette. Slaves who fiddled were regularly hired out to other plantations, which gave them a certain mobility but also marked them for recapture. The sons of Sally Hemings, the enslaved house servant whose children may have been fathered by Jefferson, were accomplished fiddlers, and when Jefferson’s daughters and granddaughters wanted music for dancing they turned to the Hemings sons. Referring to one of these sons, Beverly Hemings, Jefferson’s granddaughter wrote, “On Saturday next the youngsters of Monticello intend to adjourn to the South-Pavilion and dance after Beverley’s music.”

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.”

Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson

Even the drum, which was heavily regulated because of its associations with slave insurrections, was played at Monticello. In a recollection dictated to the Reverend Charles Campbell and published in 1847, Isaac Jefferson (also known as Isaac Granger), a blacksmith and former slave of Jefferson’s, explained that he “larnt to beat drum about this time,” or about 1781. Bob Anderson a white man was a blacksmith. Mat Anderson was a black man & worked with Bob. Bob was a fifer Mat was a drummer. Mat bout that time was sort a-makin love to Mary Hemings. The soldiers at Richmond, in the camp at Bacon Quarter Branch would come every two or three days to salute the Governor at the Palace, marching about there drumming & fifing. Bob Anderson would go into the house to drink; Mat went into the kitchen to see Mary Hemings. He would take his drum with him into the kitchen & set it down there. Isaac would beat on it & Mat larnt him how to beat.

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.

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APA Citation:
Gale, Emily. Sound in Jefferson’s Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/sound-in-jeffersons-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Gale, Emily. "Sound in Jefferson’s Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, July 22
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