What Did Thomas Jefferson’s World Sound Like?
Recreating the soundscape of Monticello, from patriotic songs to the slap of the whip.
Jefferson amassed his collection through his travels and from his emissaries. Writing in 1778 to Giovanni Fabbroni, an Italian naturalist and economist, he declared that “fortune has cast my lot in a country where [music] is in a state of deplorable barbarism.” Jefferson hoped to create a sonic past and present for the new country. He understood the ways sound could be mobilized for political purposes; for him, music collecting was also nation-building. Jefferson kept scrapbooks during his presidency, in which he collected hundreds of songs linking national song and national identity. The newspaper clippings do not have notation but they do mention the tunes to which the lyrics are to be sung. Odes to liberty, celebrations of July Fourth, and odes to Jefferson himself are sung to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Anacreon in Heaven” (the tune for “The Star Spangled Banner”). These songs were performed for specific political events, with the lyrics tailored to patriotic purposes. Try this version of “Anacreon in Heaven,” “written for the Anniversary of American Independence”:
Well met, fellow freemen!
Let’s cheerfully greet,
The return of this day, with a
For freedom this day in her chosen retreat,
Hailed her favourite JEFFERSON
Chief of our nation.
A chief in whose mind
Wisdom, probity, honor and
Let our wine sparkle high, whilst
We gratefully give,
The health of our Sachem, and
Long may he live.
Speaking of sachems, though Jefferson seems to have had little affection for black music, he championed the music of Native Americans, using them to counter European claims about the inherent degeneracy of the New World. But Jefferson also sought to create an American national music by appropriating Scottish and Irish folk songs. In 1838, his spunky granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge wrote in her travel diary that "The music of Scotland may almost be called the national music of Virginia. The simple, plaintive or sprightly airs which every body knows and every body sings are Scotch. … This music is natural, intelligible, comes home to every body’s business and bosom.”
American also borrowed from the Scotch and Irish the fiddle tune. Though Jefferson himself didn’t do much fiddling at Monticello, others did. Isaac Jefferson Granger, one of his slaves, said that Randolph Jefferson, Thomas’ little brother, “used to come out among the black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.” The sons of Sally Hemings played frequently when Jefferson’s daughters and granddaughters wanted dance music. According to Jefferson’s granddaughter, “On Saturday next the youngsters of Monticello intend to adjourn to the South-Pavilion and dance after Beverley [Hemings’] music.”
And yet Mr. Jefferson mentions none of these sounds in his writings. This studied deafness cannot be disconnected from his scientific racism. Jefferson’s two mentions of African American music-making come in the laws section of Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he explains the racial inferiority of blacks as a way of excluding them from citizenship. He writes that blacks “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Of their music making, he says, “they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. … Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.” Blacks, in other words, could play music but not compose it. Denying blacks a musical voice was part of a larger project of dehumanization. He insisted that blacks, in contrast to Europeans, were incapable of creativity, thoughtfulness, and originality. This in turn led him to render blacks incapable of citizenship, which he believed depended, among other things, on reason and aesthetics.
Despite his best efforts, however, Jefferson couldn’t completely ignore the sound of Mulberry Row. His daughters sang corn-shucking and rowing songs that they learned from the slave women who raised them. In Jefferson’s writings, black music-makers were no more a part of the music traditions he valued than they were of the national family he created. But they nonetheless participated in making Virginian music. Accounts of white women dancing to black fiddlers and sometimes dancing with them remind us that even for Mr. Jefferson the musical boundaries he wanted to police were as fluid as the sexual boundaries between black and white, as he well knew. The rhetoric and the practice create a dissonance it’s hard to imagine Jefferson’s keen ear not hearing.
Bonnie Gordon is an associate professor of music at the University of Virginia and is writing a book called Voice Machines: The Castrato, The Cat Piano and Other Strange Sounds.