For Northerners in Antebellum America the shouts of commerce rang out everywhere in their big cities; police whistles, horse hooves over cobblestone, workers yelling after hours at taverns and children–hoards of them hawking papers while calling out the latest headlines. Progress and wealth had a booming noise to it and with it a sense that things were getting done.
Southerners had their bells and their quietude.* When the slaves ran away the owners stayed in bed waiting for the morning bells that never came. But before that they heard the cicadas and the quiet (though not silent) sounds of servitude. Silence was stark and worrisome–were the dark-eyed fieldworkers readying themselves for rebellion? Quietude was different–a hum of rural bliss, a fairytale of peace and plenty.
When the noisy Union forces tramped into this fairytale of quietude the slaves listened hard. The sounds of big guns and wagon-wheels thrilled their hearts to bursting though they must remain in waiting, lips tightly closed around their excitement, for the right moment to escape to enemy lines.
Church bells were some of the first things to go. Some were melted down into cannons and some were hidden from the locust-like Union men. Bells held memories; the celebrations and mourning services of the Southern people were called out with bells. The heady air of early war was crowded with the ringing. And then came the mournful bells of death before the bells went away.
No declaring, no owning of sounds any longer. Silence, waiting and defeat. Crass Northern noise moving in jolted Southern sensibilities. Many planters and slaves remembered the intonation of the words spoken from the front yards of lush plantations: “You are free to leave us now.”
And some went and some stayed and all wondered at the changing sounds of life.
As a child I remember the freight trains at 3 am rumbling through the next town. I’d lie awake wondering about cargo and places I’d never been. On sunny afternoons in late summer I’d be carried away by the sound of small plane engines overhead as I swung high on my swing. My father’s laughter and the screen door banging endlessly–these are some of my first aural memories. I live in a quiet place now and sometimes miss those screen doors.
What are some of your aural memories and how have they changed over the years?
*Thoughts inspired by: The War Was You and Me
12 responses to “What Is Your Aural History?”
Interesting. I never thought about how background sound changes over time. Sonic booms were a ten times per day occurrence when I was a child. There are laws in place today, and some people have never heard one.
I’m not sure I have. When we were kids we thought all loud noises were sonic booms. I think they were mostly cars backfiring. 🙂
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I was just thinking about this the other night while listening to a train sound far away. One used to run through the middle of our small town and my Grandma would point it out to us, and the dogs barking. Now, living in a city near a commercial airport, the planes are going overhead constantly and we have become immune to it. My cousin was visiting and she counted 23 in one hour. We never even notice. At night, we hear sirens, dogs, motorcycles, all background noise on the fringes of our society.
There’s something sad about hearing dogs barking in the distance. I don’t know why. Now we have coyotes yipping in the night.
Around here when a helicopter flies by we look up as if it were from another planet. That’s what happens when you become a hick. 🙂
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Sirens in Brooklyn. As a child I spent many nights at my grandmother’s apartment and would listen to the constant sound of sirens. Police, fire, or ambulance. All night, or so it seemed. I have come to prefer cicadas and crickets. But the very best sound for me is nothing at all. The sweetness of quiet is tonic for an aging soul.
I lived in Brooklyn for five years–Bayridge–in a tiny apartment behind a bar. Now that was noisy! I grew a garden under the fire escape and everyone loved it. It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing.
I love the sound of clocks chiming. I think I get that from my grandmother.
I love quiet now too.
My grandparents eventually moved to senior housing in Bayridge. I helped move them. It was the last place they lived in.
I would have loved to live in Park Slope or downtown Brooklyn. Bayridge was more like a suburb. Walking near the water was nice though.
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Rain on a tin roof, at my granddad’s place.
People have very strong memories about grandparents. I wonder why. What do you think?
Neighbors chatting with my mother over the garden fence while I lay in bed as a child. Nowadays rap music walks about the house wherever my daughter goes. I am still in bed trying to get some sleep 🙂
Manufactured music has really become very invasive. My father used to pride himself on having the best stereo system. I remember Saturday mornings when we wanted to sleep in he’d be up playing just the beginning of “Losing My Religion” by REM over and over and over. We (the kids) wanted to kill him and REM.