'A voice from heaven we have heard'
In early America, sounds were the product of spiritual forces
Long before Howard Dean howled in Iowa, Quakers in East Jersey were "tainted with the Ranting Spirit." They "howled" their members into a dissident clique of flailing shouters and whooping wailers, whose religious power was located not in any particular doctrine but in the hard, almost maniacal edge of their voices. Among their buttoned-up neighbors, the Puritans, these folks were considered possessed in 1675.
But what's interesting, observes Richard Rath in this fascinating study, "How Early America Sounded," is that all sounds in those days indicated possession. Just as the noises we make when talking are considered the articulations of intelligence, so the sounds of thunder or church bells were understood by early Americans to be the products of spiritual, not mechanical, forces. They were active, not passive emanations.
"Sounds did things in the world," Rath writes. "They moved people about, struck them, and in the case of thunder, actually killed."
Yes, according to early Americans, thunder struck, not lightning, a conclusion Rath attributes to their heightened social sensitivity to sound. Until the 18th century, he writes, thunder was the terrible noise of God. When Increase Mather described the death by "thunderbolt" of an unfortunate Captain Davenport, his judgment was echoed by a Quaker, who celebrated Davenport's demise as the "sounding of God's Voice from heaven."
Rath connects the myriad ways in which sounds exerted social influence. He writes of how church bells were sometimes baptized. Even when the practice fell from favor, bells remained the focus of early communities, the sound of their peals marking a settlement's boundaries. Bells were rung to call citizens to meetings or to warn of attacks. To live outside earshot was to live dangerously outside the control and protection of the government.
For native Americans, sound embodied identity. Thunder, for instance, was not the sound of God, it was God - or, to be more precise, gods. The Ojibwe heard different "thunderers" at work in the first thunder, the thunder that hits something, the thunder that echoes, and the approaching thunder.
For Africans in America, sound was a means of constructing identity. Rath points out that while the Continental Army's drummers were mostly white and untrained, the Hessians used outstanding African drummers in its more flamboyant military bands. The Africans mixed their own traditions with those of the German mercenaries, creating something compellingly new. The process was repeated with jigs and fiddling and was, presumably, not so different from what eventually produced jazz.
Unfortunately, Rath, a professor of history at the University of Hawaii, has loaded "How Early America Sounded" with theoretical infrastructure and clunky prose that sometimes borders on parody. Writing about those African drummers, for instance, he offers this thick explanation: "Without the encoded 'text' or 'recipes' that were stored and represented in jigs and fiddling, creolized enslaved Africans would have been less likely to fill spots as Hessian drummers when the opportunities arose to 'read those texts aloud' as displays of a present power." And in one of several, unnecessary personal asides, he describes a punk band he belonged to in the early 1980s as "an unstable referent."
That said, Rath is right to call attention to our often lazy ideas about what constitutes an oral culture. It is not, by definition, the opposite of everything literate and therefore civilized, as scholars of native America have pointed out for years. In fact, Rath shows that this "ear-based way of life" existed even "in the most literate culture in the world at the time, that of the New England Puritans."
Rath also argues that the diversity of early American "soundways" may have delayed the formation of a single and distinctive American identity. Thoughts of revolution didn't stir until the old ways of thinking had been thoroughly disrupted - until, that is, a mass print culture had taken hold in the 18th century. This shift from ears to eyes provided the occasion for 1776.
Finally, and most intriguingly, Rath says we may be living during just such a time again, as the printed page transfers some of its authority to a more fluid and ephemeral cyberspace. It's too early to tell what will come of it, of course. Perhaps in years to come, we'll be treated to another study: "How Later America Clicked."
• Brendan Wolfe is a writer from Davenport, Iowa.