Music Department, Library Work to Capture the Sound of Jefferson's America

March 19, 2012

The images of early American history are easy to visualize: Jeffersonian architecture, redcoats and revolutionaries, powdered wigs, flags with the slogan "Live Free or Die." But its soundtrack is elusive.

Now, a pair of University of Virginia events will conjure and examine the sounds of early America, from the parlor music of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to slave songs and bawdy tavern sing-alongs.

On March 30 and 31, the McIntire Department of Music's "Soundscapes of Jefferson's America" symposium will examine the sounds of the era through a combination of scholarly presentations and musical performances.

Concurrently, the "Sound in Early America" exhibit – a collaboration between the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, the music department in the College of Arts & Sciences, the Jefferson Trust and the music library– opens Tuesday and features sound artifacts ranging from Jefferson's personal notebooks and family music collection to a Civil War-era musical Valentine. An opening reception on March 26 at 5 p.m. will kick off the exhibit.

Associate music professor Bonnie Gordon co-organized the symposium and curated the exhibit with library staff and a team of music graduate students.

"The idea behind all of this is to uncover not just music of the past but a textured soundscape," Gordon said. "We all have this incredibly good sense of what early America looked like. But we have very little sense of what it sounded like, and we've been trying very hard to get to what those sounds are, and to get people across Grounds to really listen to the past."

Soundscapes of Jefferson's America

The symposium will bring together performers and scholars in history, literature, theater and music and includes presentations on the music of slaves, the political and social dimensions of hearing, Jefferson's personal instrument collection and other topics.

"I think the importance of this conference is its inclusiveness in terms of both music and the broader sound world," said music department chair Richard Will, who co-organized the event. "We're considering as many different kinds of music as we can and also going beyond that into areas like oratory and the everyday sounds that marked out space in early America: the sounds of working, the sounds of socializing, even the sounds of drinking. We're trying to weave a very diverse tapestry of sound."

The conference is the culmination of a two-year project funded by the Jefferson Trust, and had its beginnings when Gordon discovered the Monticello Music Collection, which consists of Jefferson's personal sheet music and is owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation but housed in Special Collections.

Gordon was looking for a copy of a particular George Frideric Handel aria, and the library's Virgo search engine directed her to Special Collections.

"It turned out that it was in a book that Thomas Jefferson had owned, and I wasn't actually allowed to check it out," she said. "So I started wondering, 'What is here and what does it say about Thomas Jefferson?'"

The symposium, which is in its second year, has grown to include both Jefferson's music and a broader examination of what his environment sounded like.

"The conference started as a way to think about this music, and it grew very quickly into a way to think about the tension between this very well-curated collection of music and the absence of music and sound by others, especially African-Americans," Gordon said. "We know when Jefferson's daughters wanted music for dancing, it was Sally Hemings' sons who played. We know that there are the archeological remains of instruments that have been found at Mulberry Row, where the slaves lived at Monticello, and we have records of music and sounds at other slave plantations in the South. This was a rich sound culture."

The symposium begins March 30 with a series of discussions at the Harrison Institute/Small Special Collections Library auditorium and concludes March 31 with sessions at Montalto, culminating in a performance by old-time banjo virtuoso Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton. Later that evening, the Free Bridge Quintet will present "Jazz Meets Jefferson" at Old Cabell Hall. Harmonious Blacksmith & Friends will also perform a free concert as part of the symposium.

Sound in Early America Exhibit

The exhibit, housed on the first floor of the Small Special Collections Library, showcases historical items that evoke the sound of early America, from the Jeffersonian era through the Civil War.

Gordon curated the exhibit with a class of music graduate students – Amy Coddington, Stephanie Doktor, Emily Gale, Courtney Kleftis and Gretchen Michelson – as well as music library assistant Winston Barham.

The students went through materials ranging from the advertisements for minstrel shows to Jefferson's personal notebooks, which contain song lyrics and notes about music that he observed.

Michelson, a Ph.D. candidate, likened the experience of curating the exhibit to the effect of visiting a historical site in person as opposed to simply reading about it.

"If someone comes to the exhibit, I hope they leave thinking 'This is awesome, I've seen these rare manuscripts and the music,' but that they are also engaged with their own imagination and thinking about what sounds were like in this place many years ago," she said.

Michelson said she was especially interested in a book called the "Christian Minstrel," which dates to 1848 and is a sort of early music textbook that used shape-note singing and contained instructions on four-part harmony.

Doktor, also a Ph.D. candidate, said she was drawn to the project in part through an interest in issues of race and minstrel music, which often featured white performers in blackface. Writing about those materials for the exhibit was a challenging process, she said.

"How do you write about the racial politics of something like this?" Doktor said. "It's not neutral; it's very insidious."

Selecting the materials required a consideration of both content and presentation, Kleftis said.

"Part of it is looking for things that are visually appealing," she said.

Examining Jefferson's music also brought him to life in a new way, Gordon said. Jefferson enjoyed a reputation as a virtuosic violinist, but much of the violin music in his collection didn't show signs of having been heavily played, she said. The music his daughters played, however, showed evidence of substantial practice.

"Jefferson also sustained an injury that would have made it hard for him to play much of this music," Gordon said.

Will praised the exhibit and the symposium as an incredibly successful collaboration between the music department, the library, Monticello and the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.

Gordon also said the experience of curating the exhibit has changed her perception of the nature of libraries and historical collections.

"We think of libraries as being very quiet and silent, but we've learned that the library is very noisy," Gordon said. "It's full of sonic artifacts and full of sound. And we're encouraging people to listen to that. We don't have playlists or phonograph recordings that actual reproduce sound from early America, but we do have this incredibly vital printed record that we can learn to listen for."

– by Rob Seal