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