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Volume 15, no. 1:

How Early America Sounded. By Richard Cullen Rath. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003 [240 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8014-7272-5. Paper, 2005, $19.95]

Reviewed by Mariana Whitmer*

1. Introduction

2. Natural Sounds

3. Man-made Sounds

4. Vocal Sounds

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

1.1 “Hear the page as well as see it,” encourages Richard Cullen Rath, in the introduction (p. x) of this fascinating study of seventeenth-century America, immediately setting the tone for a book that encourages us to re-think how we listen to and perceive the world around us, as it challenges us to interpret and inject these sounds with new meaning. From the first time I picked up this book I was captivated. I found myself considering: What exactly did early America sound like? What were the sounds that early Americans heard? In the absence of motorized sounds, radios, and televisions, I anticipated reading about animal calls, waterways, and weather—that is, natural sounds. I imagined a relatively quiet seventeenth-century America. Quite unexpectedly, Rath, a professor of history at the University of Hawaii, led me into a world that was louder than I would have thought and shaped by sounds in a way that I had not imagined. “Iron hooves and cartwheels on cobblestones and pavement made a tremendous racket, much louder than present-day automobiles” (p. 116), Rath explains, and lightning “was a tangible force laden with intent” (p. ix).

1.2 But what about music? It did not surprise me that Rath was not going to talk about music, since this is a book about how early America “sounded,” implying that man maintained a passive stance as natural or non-musical sounds echoed around him. This did not include man actively engaged in constructing progressions of man-made or instrumental sounds, as in “music.” Except Rath does talk about music, and this is perplexing. Rath’s initial discourse about natural sounds is fascinating, but problems arise when he introduces man-made sounds, and these are compounded when he ventures into discussions about music. It is this important distinction between “sound” and “music,” as it relates to Rath’s discussion, that I found most troublesome and what detracted from my overall enthusiasm for this amazing book.

2. Natural Sounds

2.1 Rath focuses on a few natural sounds (not an animal amongst them), especially those that impacted people’s lives, sometimes even physically. Thunder, for example, was synonymous with lightning, and that made it life-threatening. “Usually it was the ‘terrible cracks of thunder’ that inflicted the most damage” (p. 23). Rath also discusses those “thunders underground” and other sounds made by the earth, some of them preceding earthquakes. Waterfalls were not as important to the European populations, however, one population of Native Americans “constructed part of their identity from the sounds of Niagara Falls” (p. 37), as they were more sensitive to natural sounds and could hear waterfalls from greater distances.

2.2 The most fascinating part of Rath’s discourse on natural sounds, however, is the documents that he brings to bear on the subject. It wasn’t so much the sounds that were important, but how they were explained. Although all populations sought sources for these early sounds and ascribed importance to them, they each did it differently. Europeans, Native Americans, and African Americans maintained distinct interpretations of the natural world for varied social reasons. Natural sounds needed a source, and in the absence of man’s causing them, Rath argues, men turned to God, the Devil, or some other divine source. How these sounds were used differed depending on geographic location, social structure, and beliefs. By attributing them to a non-human entity, these sounds could be utilized for social purposes, ensuring morality and correct behavior amongst the society.

3. Man-made Sounds

3.1 Man-made, or instrumental, sounds were also used for different reasons by the various populations, but primarily “to build social order and govern traffic with worlds both visible and invisible” (p. 46), depending on their individual histories and theories. Rath’s consideration of man-made sounds comprises discussions of both “sounds” and “music,” however, when they really should be considered separately and this is where Rath’s otherwise wonderful discourse gets complicated and troublesome.

3.2 Rath initiates this section with a discussion about the English institutionalized use of instruments (primarily bells, but also trumpets and drums) and ordnance (gun shot) and how it was transported to the colonies to maintain social order, a type of governance by sound. “European Americans used instrumental sounds to extend the limits of community beyond the realm of face-to-face encounters, and to shape social structures within or against those limits” (p. 46). Similarly, Native Americans utilized sounds to maintain their larger group identities. Their soundscapes were quieter, and more sensitive, however. While they were impressed by the sound of the European’s ordnance, shells and snake rattles provided personal soundways for the Native Americans of the Chesapeake area (p. 58). Especially intriguing in this section is Rath’s mention of their “speaking platforms” (pp. 58–9) which allowed for conversations over wide areas and “reflected and amplified sounds.” His brief reference to a comparison with the Europeans’ acoustical spaces could have been expanded in his subsequent discussion of this topic. Unfortunately, Rath doesn’t include Native Americans in his description of acoustical properties.

3.3 Rath extends this discussion of social order through sound to the African American populations, but his argument in this case is based on music and this prompted several questions, at least in my mind. At this point in the book, I was accustomed to thinking about “sounds,” not “music,” so this sudden shift in perspective and content was also disorienting. Through a lengthy, detailed discussion of African musical traditions, beginning with an example of notated songs heard in Jamaica in the late seventeenth century, Rath discusses the coming together of different African cultures as demonstrated in their music. But didn’t all of the cultures that came to the New World forge different music from the music they brought with them?

3.4 Rath states that “the social functions that African Americans once fulfilled with drums they now carried out with fiddles and other string instruments” (p. 175). As drumming was gradually banned by plantation owners throughout the middle to late seventeenth century, African slaves adapted their drumming techniques to smaller percussion instruments and fiddle playing, by using the violin as a percussive instrument, tapping the bow against the body of the instrument. Songs similarly utilized those rhythms and, in some cases, translated the pitches of traditional vocal sounds to the instrument. Some specific musical examples (or more historical archival material), although difficult to locate, would have strengthened Rath’s argument considerably. A leap of faith is needed to accept the conclusion, based almost entirely on conjecture, that Africans transferred their power-laden loud sounds from the drums to the quieter sounds of the fiddle.

3.5 These discussions serve to bolster the argument that “African Americans used drums and other instruments to reconnect, often in new ways, their disrupted social, religious, and (where possible) political lives” (p. 46). But didn’t the European populations utilize music for similar purposes? Granted, theirs was not a forced migration, but surely “disrupted” all the same. Where is the discussion about psalm singing and other, secular, forms of music-making? What about the social cohesion that this music engendered? Considering this lengthy discussion of African American instrumental and musical practices, it is bothersome that Rath doesn’t mention how the European cultures integrated their “brought” music to help structure their lives.

4. Vocal Sounds

4.1 Rath sidesteps the issue of European music and initiates the conversation about vocal sounds by presenting a tangential discussion of early American acoustics. He compares European church acoustics with North American houses of worship (New England meeting houses and Quaker meeting house), discussing how the architecture, and consequently the acoustics, shaped what went on inside. I will never again enter a house of worship, or other meeting place, without considering how the manipulation of the sound influences its interpretation.

4.2 Vocal sounds were more than a communication vehicle for the European colonists; depending on the type of utterance, they could also be a source of social contention. Among the sounds Rath discusses are clamoring, murmuring, humming, groaning, howling, barking, and sometimes, singing, which could also be considered ranting. The type of sound you made defined your social position and perhaps your spiritual state of being: “Extralinguistic and paralinguistic vocalizations were thought to be somehow more immediate expressions of the inner self than linguistic voicing” (p. 124). Thus, singing could be interpreted in two ways, Rath explains: “Powerful vocalizations like psalm-singing placed the utterer solidly in the center of things as they should be,” (p. 125) while ranting “posed a potent threat to social order in seventeenth-century British North America” (p. 127).

4.3 Since it is impossible to actually hear what went on, we are left to place our own subjective interpretation on what Rath describes. The “singing Quakers” (also known as the “ranting Quakers”) could actually have been “singing” and not “ranting,” a term which easily lends itself to different interpretations. We must consider that the large quantities of documentation concerning this topic may have been somewhat slanted, as they were often based precisely on the impressions of those appalled by this behavior. What is clear from Rath’s description, however, is that this “ranting,” whatever it sounded like, was a subject of vehement dispute. “They were fighting over who was cultivated and who was wild, who was Christian and English and who had gone to the devil or the ‘savages,’ who was self and who was other” (p. 133).

4.4 These discussions of the acoustics of the houses of worship and the vocal religious sects in large part serve to place an emphasis on religious life during this era. We do know, however, that secular traditions were just as strong. By focusing on these topics, laden with implications of the god-fearing life, Rath propagates the myth that seventeenth-century European colonists did not enjoy secular music.

4.5 Native Americans, did not “rant” or “groan” (well, perhaps they did), but their vocal soundscape featured howling and singing. The howling sounds, including roaring, yelling, and whooping, served to marginalize the Native Americans, according to the Europeans, and consign them to the wilderness as savages. This social discrimination through sound extended even to the interpretation of their techniques of combat. As Rath explains, “planned battles were prepared for with war songs,” while “attacks were initiated with yells” (p. 152). But there were other kinds of music that ordered the lives of the Native Americans, including songs of identity and death, peace and treaties. It is unclear what these may have sounded like, and while Rath uses the terms “chanting” and “singing” almost interchangeably, a contemporary source describes this type of music as sounding like plainchant (p. 161). Yet Rath assigns these songs to the same soundscape as other sounds, including howling and whooping, not recognizing that they require different consideration.

5. Conclusion

5.1 The most problematic issue with Rath’s book is not whether he distinguishes between “sound” and “music,” but rather how he construes their purposes and consigns both to the same soundways. Sounds, whether natural or man-made, cannot be interpreted in the same way as music. Music is laden with intent, with history, and with emotion. Natural sounds are random and man-made sounds are primarily utilitarian. As Rath demonstrates with his long descriptive history of the African songs, music has a well-developed context, while sounds do not.

5.2 In addition, if African American and Native American musics, whether notated or not, are taken into consideration as part of the seventeenth century soundscape, then why not European music? Admittedly, that would be too much to deal with in this book, but it at least deserves mention. While Rath’s intent was not to cover all of the sounds and all of the music heard in seventeenth-century America, his consigning silence to the European music-making population sketches an incomplete portrait of the overall soundscape of early America.

5.3 The overall impression of this book is that of a cobbled together collection of disparate studies of the seventeenth-century American soundways. Although each is interesting in itself, as a whole, the book is incomplete and often raises more questions than it answers. In spite of these inherent problems, How Early America Sounded is insightful and thought-provoking, not just with regard to seventeenth-century cultures, but also modern and future cultures. In a world where everyone can create their own personal soundscape, through the use of iPods or other personal audio devices, it is truly fascinating to consider when sounds (and, oh yes, sometimes music) were shared. They could also be vitally important, life-threatening, socially organizing, and a means of defining identities. “Early Americans sensed the world more through their ears than we do today” (p. 174). Rath talks about the change from a sound-oriented society to a text- or visual-oriented society and suggests we may be moving to something other than visual, based on our evolving technology. Helping us to understand past perceptions of sound will help us to navigate in the present and future world of emerging technologies and the changes taking place in how we communicate and structure our social and political communities.

* Mariana Whitmer (samed@pitt.edu) is Executive Director of the Society for American Music and directs special projects at the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh. She has contributed essays to Music in the Western (Routledge) and Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age (Oxford, forthcoming). She is the author of a Film Score Guide on The Big Country (Scarecrow).


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