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Documenting the South Through Sound

A Duke course analyzes the sounds that characterize the South

Duke senior Brooke Watson gathers sound in Duke Gardens as part of her Sounds of the South course, fall 2013. Photo by James Todd, Duke University.
Duke senior Brooke Watson gathers sound in Duke Gardens as part of her Sounds of the South course, fall 2013. Photo by James Todd, Duke University.

Even now, two years later, John LeBeau can't forget the nice woman in the Duke dining hall with the lovely, lilting voice. 

Every Friday, without fail, the woman would chirp "Happy Friday!" to each student going through the breakfast line at The Marketplace, the dining hall on Duke's East Campus, where first-year students live.

LeBeau grew up in Rochester, N.Y, and was new to the South. That voice burrowed into his head and never left.

"When I think of the South, I think of her," LeBeau recalled recently. "It was such a warm and inviting salutation. Every time, you felt like she meant it."

A junior now majoring in economics, LeBeau has thought a lot about "Happy Friday" lately thanks to "Sounds of the South," an English class he's taking that analyzes the auditory characteristics that distinguish the southern United States.

LeBeau is one of 14 students in this new class, the brainchild of Mary Caton Lingold, a graduate student in English at Duke who is thinking big about sound. By semester's end, she expects her students to begin recording and analyzing sounds they connect with North Carolina and the South and contribute them to a "sonic dictionary" -- essentially a digital archive of sounds.

Eventually, Lingold envisions a searchable archive of sound open to all. Wonder what a cicada sounds like? Search under "c." Need the difference between the "d" and "b" strings on a 5-string banjo? Check the dictionary.

"There are a lot of reasons why someone might want to know what something sounds like," said Lingold, who grew up in Texas. "It may be useful for teachers. Or a poet or author may want to describe something -- like the cutting of a tobacco leaf -- but they've never heard it done so they can't describe it accurately."

The class is one of several new projects casting an academic spotlight on sound and its intersection with imagery. This fall, Duke unveiled its newest humanities laboratory, called Audiovisualities. Located in Smith Warehouse, Audiovisualities is a headquarters for faculty members and students examining images and sound, the latter an emerging area of research in cultural and social studies. Many scholars say sound has traditionally been an under-studied and underappreciated area of research, perhaps because it is, literally, heard but not seen.

"We want to bring sound on par with visual studies," said lab co-director Guo-Juin Hong. "Film studies, for example, has long been dominated by the visual, where people would make a little mention of music or sound, but usually not systematically."

The lab will be used by faculty members across the humanities. For example, students in lab co-director Jacqueline Waeber's music class will explore the transition from French silent films to those with sound.

And in music professor John Supko's electronic music class, students will use lab resources to analyze modern techniques used in recording studios.

"We provide a venue for experimentation and exploration," said Hong, who teaches film courses in Duke's Arts of the Moving Image program. "It's not outcome-driven. It's important for people to come together and try things out."

In Lingold's class, students examine how sound is presented in literature and film. In one class, students discussed the ways sound is used in "The Clansman," an early-20th century novel that inspired the famous silent film "Birth of a Nation." In another, they discussed "Cane," a series of vignettes written in 1923, mostly set in rural Georgia. One vignette is a poem about slave music and pine forests in Georgia that references the sounds of an operating saw mill. The poem spurred one of Lingold's students to track down that same sort of sound to add to the dictionary.

While small, Lingold's class is diverse. Brooke Watson grew up in Hickory in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina. Hers was a distinctly southern upbringing and the notion of southern sounds rings true to her, from the whooshing and zooming of a NASCAR race to the din of a Friday night high school football game.

The sounds she hopes to record for the sonic dictionary run the gamut: She may track down some cloggers, who perform a folk dance similar to tap dancing by tapping their heels and toes. Or she may try to recapture a distinct memory of her youth: the sound of the rolling pin flattening dough to make biscuits in her family's kitchen.

And then, of course, there are accents.

"Even within North Carolina, you'll hear all sorts of different accents," said Watson, a senior. "In western North Carolina, you'll hear a much different accent than you will in eastern North Carolina. I find myself picking up a stronger southern accent at home, more than when I'm at Duke."

Tom Shelbourn brings a starkly different point of view. A junior from England, Shelbourn had an awakening of sorts during Lingold's class when he attended a performance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a Nashville-based group that sings Negro spirituals. When the group performed at Duke, Shelbourn took note of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," which he knew only in the context of the English national rugby team, which has adopted a version of the song as its anthem.

"It was interesting to hear it in a different context," Shelbourn said. "To me it means something completely different."