Thomas Jefferson loved music—it “is the favorite passion of my soul,” he wrote—but according to Bonnie Gordon, “little attention has been paid to what he heard and how he processed those sounds.” A professor of music at the University of Virginia (and, no small thing, a fellow violist), Gordon helped to organize a conference here, Soundscapes of Jefferson’s America, that happened in March. Wait, in March? How did we miss this?!
Well, we did. But now Gordon’s piece in Slate tells us that Jefferson’s world was a noisy one: “The sounds of cicadas, thunder, speech, bells, and horse hooves animated early America. Music resounded in taverns, parlors, political rallies, official celebrations, and dances.” He didn’t have headphones to block stuff out, of course, but he did know enough to put the slave quarters and workspaces down the hill, thus minimizing the chatter and even the singing. While Jefferson wrote that his enslaved Africans were “more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time,” their compositions were obviously inferior. Humorously, Gordon offers up this couplet from Jefferson’s own music collection:
When first I saw Betty and made my complaint
I whined like a fool and she sighed like a Saint
Jefferson’s skill on the violin, meanwhile, is likely a myth. Or so claims Gordon. I’m not sure I can agree. My feeling is that if Blythe Danner says it, it must be true.
Whatever the case, Gordon, in using Jefferson as her hook, gives short shrift in her piece to just how fundamentally different early Virginians relationship to sound was from our own. For more on that, I recommend How Early America Sounded (2003) by Richard Cullen Rath. I reviewed the book a number of years ago for the Christian Science Monitor, and what struck me was how sound—not sight, as today—ruled the lives of early Americans. The sound of bells, for instance, helped to regulate the size of towns; to live outside earshot was to live dangerously outside the government’s protection. And it was thunder, which is to say sound, that killed, not lightning.
Rath looks to the Sea Venture for an example of this thinking. He notes how William Strachey‘s description of the terrible storm that sent the Jamestown-bound ship off course to Bermuda depended upon evocations of sound:
At the storm’s onset Strachey remarked that “the wind singing and whistling most unusually” had caused the Sea Venture “to cast off our pinnace,” which was in tow. One ship was thus lost even before the hurricane had descended in earnest. “A dreadful storm and hideous” immediately ensued, “swelling and roaring as if it were by fits.” Immediately, the sound of the storm made communications onboard impossible. The “clamours” of women and passengers not used to such hurly and discomfort” and the prayers and shouts of the more seasoned crew were all “drowned in the winds and the winds in thunder.” There was “nothing heard that could give comfort.”
With this in mind, one is tempted to revisit that couplet Gordon quoted, the one about Betty and “my complaint.” “It might make a UVA frat boy blush,” Gordon writes, but isn’t it also interesting that rather than ask us to picture the dirty deed, the writer instead insists that we hear it?
IMAGE: Wreck of Sea Venture by W. H. Harrington, 1981 (Bermuda National Trust and Bermuda Maritime Museum)