What Did Thomas Jefferson’s World Sound Like?
Recreating the soundscape of Monticello, from patriotic songs to the slap of the whip.
Clues about Thomas Jefferson and slavery can be gathered from his passion for music
Painting by Rembrandt Peale in 1800.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that “music is the favorite passion of my soul.” He was an avid collector of musical scores, and believed that the new republic needed to build a musical tradition. The blog “Musicology for Everyone” lists the third president as the second most musical, after Warren Harding, who played the sousaphone well enough to join the band celebrating his election.
Despite Jefferson’s ear for music, however, little attention has been paid to what he heard and how he processed those sounds. A modern-day visitor to Charlottesville, Va. and Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, has a pretty good idea of what Jefferson’s hometown looked like 200 years ago—but what did it sound like? The modern soundscape has car alarms, construction rumble, and amplified music. The sounds of cicadas, thunder, speech, bells, and horse hooves animated early America. Music resounded in taverns, parlors, political rallies, official celebrations, and dances.
Thanks to new exhibits at Monticello and at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, we can get an idea of what life was like not just inside the white columned residence of the third president but also on Mulberry Row, in the homes of slaves who made Jefferson’s life possible. The exhibits display the fundamental Jeffersonian paradox: a man who was a champion of liberty and a slaveholder. It’s a paradox Jefferson himself seems not to have wanted to be reminded of.
Blocking unwanted sounds is easy in our iPod era. Headphones allow us to avoid crying babies, chattering passengers, and other unpleasant noise. Jefferson didn’t have such technology, but he found other ways to mute the sounds of his plantation at work. For starters, Jefferson kept “noise” outside the house. My colleague Craig Barton notes that Jefferson used architecture and landscaping to “render invisible the slaves and their place of work from the important symbolic view of the property.” Placing the slave quarters and workspaces downslope also minimized slave sounds penetrating Mr. Jefferson’s bastion—sound travels poorly uphill. What noise did arrive at Jefferson’s home was kept at bay by plate glass windows.
Outside those windows, and down the hill, Monticello reverberated with sounds of discipline and work. In the nailery, from dawn to dusk, 12 boys stood around open fires heading nails with heavy hammers. Occasionally, the overseer would beat them. All of these sounds, metal on metal and whip on flesh, punctuated the workshop even as they remained inaudible in the planation house.
In Jefferson’s day, even black music was understood as noise. Frederick Douglass’ call to listen to the meanings of slaves singing and abolitionists’ collections of slave songs were still decades away. We know Jefferson heard slaves make music, and yet he mentioned their ability to sing or play an instrument only twice in all of his writings. Their songs simply did not count as the elevated art that was the president’s favorite passion.
As for the music he did listen to, Jefferson probably heard and hummed much more than he played—his impressive skill as a fiddler is likely a myth. As his granddaughter explained, “Mr. Jefferson never accomplished more than a gentlemanly proficiency.” The violin music in his collection is nearly untouched (in contrast to the keyboard music that belonged to his wife and daughters), and he last purchased fiddle strings in 1793, before he bought much of his music.
Contrary to received notions of Jefferson the prude, some of the music in his collection feature lyrics that might make a UVA frat boy blush:
When first I saw Betty and made my complaint
I whined like a fool and she sighed like a Saint.
Maria Cosway, the composer, musician, and artist with whom Jefferson had a romance, sent him a set of her songs whose cover depicts a cupid and a lion engaged in interspecific activities that violate several state laws in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Courtesy Bonnie Gordon.
Jefferson needed scores, because in his day if you wanted music you had to make it. The part of the family music collection not lost in various fires and Jefferson’s catalog of his complete collection is all we have left of his parlor playlist, which would have been played mostly by his daughters and granddaughters. The collection reveals the music he heard, wanted to hear, or wanted others to think he heard.
Among other things, it contains music for Spanish guitar, French harpsichord sonatas, arrangements of popular Scottish ballads for various instruments, and old editions of ballad operas from London pleasure gardens. It also has manuscript music notebooks that his wife and in-laws kept. His wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, copied keyboard exercises, popular songs, and other short pieces.
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.