April 12, 2017
Writing Early American History with Sound
Doing HistoryLapidus Initiative
7 min read
Today’s post is by Liz Covart, the Lapidus Initiative Assistant Editor for New Media and host of Ben Franklin’s World.
I’ve been thinking a lot about horses. Specifically, what a Narragansett Pacer mare would have sounded like galloping on a dirt road in mid-April in the dead of night.
If I were a bystander, I might hear the faint noises of the labored breathing of the horse, the muffled commands of its rider, and a gallop that would all increase in volume until it peaked when I saw the horse and rider go by and heard its tack jingle. Then all of those sounds would fade into the distance as the horse made its way down the road.
If I were riding the horse, I’d hear the horse galloping on the dirt road differently. The horse’s labored breathing, hoof beat, and tack jingle would be constant sounds in my ears. I’d also likely hear my clothes rustling in the wind created by our movement, if I listened to my experience fully.
The weather would also dictate the sounds I’d hear. Horses galloping on dry, dirt roads sound different than those galloping on wet, muddy roads. Plus, wind would make the dead of night seem alive. Instead of hearing the quiet stillness of the night, I’d hear the rustle of leaves and branches.
I’ve put a lot of thought into what will likely amount to about 10–20 seconds of audio in my next narrative-style podcast episode, “Paul Revere’s Ride Through History,” which will air as the next teaser episode of the Ben Franklin’s World-Omohundro Institute’s Doing History: To the Revolution! series on April 18, 2017.
There are many challenges in writing early American history in audio. One challenge is soundscape. Our twenty-first century environment is different from the eighteenth-century environment. Our buildings and spaces have different acoustics because of differences in building materials, construction techniques, and the built environment. Plus, in the twenty-first century, film, video, and modern radio have conditioned our minds to hear certain sounds differently than they really sound in nature. For example, think of the sound a bald eagle makes. Chances are your mind has conjured the call of a red tailed hawk, which is the call sound designers have used to stand in for the bald eagle in film and audio. (Admittedly, the call of the red tailed hawk is a bit more dramatic than that of the bald eagle.)
Narrative style and word choice are important when we write about history. The style we use in our writing positions readers inside or outside of the history we we want to convey. Choosing the right words when we write about historical people, places, and events determines how our readers form mental pictures and think about those people, places, and events. The same careful consideration of language must also go into how we portray early American history in audio.
As I consider “Paul Revere’s Ride Through History,” I need to think of how the horse sounds I select will position my listeners in the story I want to tell. Do I want them to listen to the episode as bystanders to Paul Revere’s famous ride and less famous post-revolutionary life? Or do I want the sounds to trick listeners’ brains into thinking that they are a part of Paul Revere’s story?
Additionally, I need to think about “primary” and “secondary source” sounds. Should I set out to find a “primary source”-like sound of a real Narragansett Pacer galloping along a dirt road because it is more authentic? Or will a “secondary source”-like sound of a regular, non-draft horse galloping on a dirt road suffice to evoke the mental image I want listeners to create? These are some of the narrative decisions I need to make as I write and produce this and future series episodes
The goal of the Doing History: To the Revolution! series is to ask and explore not just “what is the history of the Revolution?” but “what are the histories of the Revolution?” These are great and important questions and they are questions that should headline the series. However behind-the-scenes, I’m also asking two additional questions: “How can I get at the past and portray it through sound? And ”how can I use audio to make the past come alive?”
Click to download the Ben Franklin’s World app for your iOS or Android device or subscribe via iTunes or Google Play Music.
 David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, (Oxford University Press, 1994), 106; Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1942); Charlotte Carrington-Farmer, “Slave Horse: The Narragansett Pacer,” The Junto, https://earlyamericanists.com/2015/08/05/guest-post-slave-horse-the-narragansett-pacer/.
 The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Call of a Bald Eagle,” https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bald_Eagle/sounds; The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Call of a Red Tailed Hawk,” https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-tailed_Hawk/sounds.